Running Kitten Robot Studios, Paul Roessler has been busy serving as the producer/engineer for Kitten Robot Records releases from Josie Cotton, Eddie Spaghetti & Frank Meyer, Hayley and the Crushers, Tombstones In Their Eyes, and CrowJane. He continues to write and record his own music whenever the studio is free, and recently put out a new solo album, The Turning Of The Bright World.
Classically trained, Roessler wrote a 47-minute long prog-rock piece called “The Arc” at age 16 (later recorded in 2012). He was part of innovative electro-punk band The Screamers in the late 70’s, and in 1981 formed Twisted Roots with Pat Smear (Germs/Foo Fighters) and his sister Kira Roessler (prior to her involvement with Black Flag.) Roessler has collaborated with Mike Watt (Crimony) and Dez Cadeda (DC3), as well as working artists/bands such as 45 Grave, Nervous Gender, Geza X and the Mommymen, and Nina Hagen. His production career has seen him produce for T.S.O.L., Richie Ramone, Pat The Bunny, and many others.
In the following interview, Roessler talks about his career and the making of The Turning Of The Bright World.
I know you’ve been working with the studio and producing. What made you decide to do another solo album at this point in time?
Paul Roessler: I‘m always recording. I’ve been writing since I was probably 12 or 13. I used to record on a reel-to-reel when I was a kid. So I’m like one of those guys that have always been making records, at least in my mind. I didn’t always have access to a really good recording studio. I mean, I would get access with bands. Like I had my own band, Twisted Roots, and they put me in the studio at different times. And then around the nineties, I got a series of eight-tracks at my house; eight tracks is a pretty good step up from a four-track, which I had in the eighties. So I got those and I kind of just went into my hole and recorded, every night for years and years. It’s kind of like songwriting demos I guess, by most people’s standards. But for me, I didn’t really look at it that way. I mean the Beatles albums were recorded on four and eight tracks, so I was trying to make real works of art.
So this one, this collection of songs; I moved into this studio in 2012. I’m partnered with Josie Cotton and the studio is called Kitten Robot. And when we first moved in here, there wasn’t really any business yet. So the first thing I did was I recorded my 47-minute prog rock piece, which is called “The Arc.” I did that in 2012 and put it out in 2013. And after that was done, business still hadn’t really gotten going. And I was breaking up with my girlfriend at the time and I kind of wrote songs and recorded a song every day. And that album’s called “6/12.” I had spent so much time working on this prog album. It was so complicated and difficult. It took like, I don’t know, 800 hours probably at least. And I wanted to do something just really fast. I was just in dire straits emotionally, so I just decided to do that. After I had done those things, the songwriting process continued and some of the earliest songs on this record date back from around 2014 and 2015.
Then the studio really picked up and got really busy. And I was working on a lot. I was trying to finish all the nineties eight-track stuff as far as bringing them into a real studio and trying to upgrade them. So I would go back to that if I didn’t have any ideas. And then I also wrote a piece called “Galatea” that was based on a book by Richard Powers, which wound up being a 21-minute song. So I was doing all this other stuff. I must have produced .. and someday I should try to estimate how many bands I recorded from 2013 to now, but definitely in the hundreds. And some of them come back a lot; there are people I’ve recorded seven or eight albums with during that time.
Did you kind of have a general idea for the album and then go back and pick the material that you wanted to use? Did some of the material lead you to seek out similar things amongst songs you’d accumulated? What was the process of putting it together?
Paul Roessler: Well, at first it was just writing the songs and I probably wrote at least twice as many as got used. One of the reasons it took so long is I didn’t really have a vision of what this album looked like. All the other ones were kind of defined, and then they made sense; the prog piece, I wrote the whole structure of it out. And then I had composed the structure. This is kind of the opposite, but what finally made it come together like last year was [that] my wife took that picture, that Polaroid that’s on the cover. And I thought of one of the lyrics, from one of the songs, to call it “The Turning of the Bright World.“ And all of a sudden now it has a unity. And some of the songs that didn’t fit dropped away pretty obviously.
It came together, but it really took a while. It was that photograph and calling it that, that suddenly went ‘okay, I get it now.’ And then it was all obvious. Then it sounds like I planned the whole thing. That happens a lot. I’m very open to the subconscious, I’m very open to accidents. I’m very open to mistakes. I find that mistakes and accidents in the subconscious are much smarter than my rationality when I try to approach creativity. So often I do a lot of like throwing paint at the wall and letting it drip. And then afterwards it looked like it was all on purpose, and I think it is all on purpose. It becomes purposeful when you get it into the final state, and you use all those elements. And as they congeal, now I see the record. I know exactly what I was about.
Once it did start to come together, were there any particular songs that you may have revisited or changed? Did any of the material particularly evolve as you found the focus of the album?
Paul Roessler: No, actually I write music really fast. A lot of that music usually comes together in a day or two, and then there’s tiny tweaks that probably no one hears. But as an artist, I think all the tiny, tiny things that you do afterward, maybe make it go down a little bit better for people who are listening. But the process of creating the music is usually very quick. And then the process of writing the lyrics is kind of agonizing and sometimes takes three or four or five or six days. And then sometimes the piece of music never winds up getting lyrics, I never figure out what the song is, what the music is suggesting. But I’m actually pretty fast, I work with some people who are really, really … can take a month on a song and I’m not like that. I’m much faster. When the music comes together, it has a strong identity to me.
Have you performed, or do you plan on performing, this material live? Or do you see it just mainly as a studio project?
Paul Roessler: Well, I am not planning on it. I am open to it. But I think there’s a … and this is kind of unfortunate for people like me who are composers and studio creatures. I actually think that there are people who are performers and really not much of a studio creature at all. And they get a lot more acceptance in the sense that, you know, people can come together at a live show and they have an experience and there’s a community aspect of it. And I’m actually … I don’t think I’m a great live performer. I think I’m an introvert. I have been a lead singer in a band, I’ve gone out and sort of tried to do that stuff. But I actually have come around to the point … like I made this video for “Maker” and I don’t like it actually.
I had a version of it where I’m all in the shadows and you can’t really see me and it’s all about the imagery. And then the director and my partners in the record company said, ‘no, we want to see you.’ And I’m like, I actually embrace that I’m a composer that shouldn’t have to set foot on stage, but I just know that nowadays a lot of people don’t consider that is being a real artist or something. But I’m going to strike a blow for the people. I don’t really believe necessarily in making videos or visual images to music. I like the idea, the sort of old fashioned idea that people listen with their ears, possibly with their eyes closed. But I realize that’s not necessarily the world we live in.
Since you have worked with so many other artists, does your production work influence your own music in any way? Is there any interaction between the two?
Paul Roessler: I think it’s mostly just my ears, after working on people’s music for 20 years has. This stuff didn’t really come fast. I was a piano player, [then] a composer very, very much later. I became a singer, probably not until the nineties. I tried to sing earlier than that, but I didn’t think I was convincing at all as a vocalist. Now I feel like I can actually get more compliments on my singing than on my piano playing, which is strange, but that took many, many years, and the same thing with producing and recording. That shift to be able to hear all the instruments at once and how they support each other and mesh took me a long time. And I think I had to learn to do that, or I wasn’t going give people a good product.
I really had to learn that the cymbals and the kick drum and the snare drum can’t just kind of get lost in there. I have to really be attentive to every aspect of things. It’s made me more humble. Like I know in the nineties, I didn’t really appreciate much of the music that was going on, not too much. And I really felt like it was essential for me to be creating music. Now I think that human beings have evolved to the point where artists are … it’s amazing how many people are artists, you know? And I think it’s a little bit bewildering. It must be bewildering if you’re trying to cover the arts when you’re just like, ‘my God, there’s so much stuff and it’s, and it’s all good.’
A few people will say it’s not good. Well no, the reason it seems like it’s not good is there are no people that are head and shoulders above everybody else. It’s like so many people are doing beautiful work that it all just seems sort of … it all starts seeming mediocre. But as a producer, I would have people walk in, like some old guy that was a punker back 30 or 40 years ago. And he just wants to make a record. He’s had a job for 30 years and I’d start working with him. I’d go. ‘Why is this so good?’ and I’d realize, ‘oh, he’s been making music for 40 years and he’s doing it for all the right reasons because he loves it, because he has something to say.’ And again and again, these people would come in and we make these great records. I feel like most of these people, if you’d dropped them back in the sixties, they’d be hailed as geniuses.
So it humbled me. In the nineties, I really felt really special, like I was exceptional. Now I feel like I’m just one of the crowd in a way. I mean, I think my record is the best BECAUSE it’s exactly what I would like. That was a big revelation. Like I was always going ‘my music is the best, of all these people‘ and now I go, ‘well, it figures, you would think that because you are making exactly what YOU think is the best.’ That’s a tough one to get your head around as a creative person, I think.
In terms of your development as a producer, I’m curious as to what effect you think the particular music you were making early on may have had. Do you think it might have given you any type of unique perspective?
Paul Roessler: I think that having been a classical pianist and classically trained from the time I was eight years old until I stopped pursuing that around 18, when I got in The Screamers and started touring with punk bands. Going straight from being a classical pianist to being in punk bands is a pretty unique perspective. And The Screamers, The Screamers were a super conceptual band that immediately disabused me of the idea, and punk rock in general, disabused me of the idea that my classical training somehow… you know, in the context of progressive rock and Yes, and Rick Wakeman and Emerson Lake and Palmer, all that technique just went with the territory, it was a necessity. To get dropped into The Screamers or Nina Hogan … it’s valuable and I’ve never tried to hide it. And I’ve always thought that honesty is one of the essential components of punk rock. And I’m in the situation where, I have all this training, so then it becomes how can the training manifest itself in a sort of a primitive music, and yet still serve that music. And I saw a few bands that did come out of prog rock. There was a band called the Deadbeats that I saw earlier on. They were kind of a punk version of Frank Zappa. And Public Image were so unique and so original. And later on, I found out that Keith Levine was a guitar tech for Steve Howe and used to tour with Yes. And he comes very much from a prog background. And I think in Public Image, you see a really wonderful example of someone who doesn’t necessarily have training, but has a super open mind to music like progressive rock, and then figured out how to apply it in a really invisible way.
So, I think that I’ve always cared. I’ve always been trying to reconcile. I think a person that did that was when David Bowie collaborated with Mike Garson, who’s a jazz pianist, on the album “Aladdin Sane.” And Brian Eno is a big influence. He talks a lot about how you put trained musicians alongside naive musicians and how that works. So this has been something that’s always been a major part of like my whole process.
For this album, did you collaborate with anyone or do pretty much everything yourself?
Paul Roessler: Very little. I had some musicians in almost by accident in a few places. There’s one song, ‘Quiet Night on the Mooncam‘ that my friend said, ‘we gotta get Paul out of all these piano ballads, I’m gonna book the studio, hire a drummer and bass player, and we’re gonna write some songs on the spot.’ And we wrote about five songs that way. I like the way that song came out. So that got a real collaboration,. But I find that I really like the challenge of trying to do everything myself and I really don’t really think my songs lend themselves to guitar, bass, and drums very often.
Sometimes when I try to do a sort of a standard instrumentation on my songs, magic just slips right through my fingers. I don’t hear it anymore at all. So that took a long time to figure out it. Before, I thought I was doing this out of necessity. I didn’t have a studio; I didn’t have a drummer. I didn’t have a bass player. I didn’t have a microphone. So I just had to make it out of the little things that I had. But there’s been a few times when I have tried to do it with people, and I actually like every sound having to be a product of necessity.
Do you tend to keep your own music completely separate from other things that you’re doing? Do you dedicate blocks of time to your own stuff?
Paul Roessler: Yeah, I think that they’re totally separate. First of all, the studio’s really literally booked 60, 70, 80 hours a week. So, if I have a cancellation or it’s a holiday [I use it]. The thing is, I can write a piece of music anytime I sit down; something interesting will come. I had so few resources, sonically, back in the nineties, and with the computer I have now there are so many unbelievable resources. It’s really daunting and overwhelming. So it’s a joy. Like I just sit down and I go, ‘what does this thing do?’ I’ve got plugins I don’t even use, just because when we built the place the guys that helped me design the studio just threw all this stuff in there. So I have so much stuff to experiment with. Something really cool and interesting always comes out. But lyrics are really important to me. So, that really takes some time and serious effort to get the end results that you hear on this record. But it’s really separate from the producing. It’s a really different mind space.
What was it like working with Nina Hagen?
Paul Roessler: I think for some musicians Nina Hagen’s very difficult to work with because she doesn’t play by the rules and she’s not really interested in making decisions based on her career. And so therefore her career has gone and fluctuated throughout her life to great heights of success and then complete sort of periods where she was obscure. Her decision-making is based on spirituality and spontaneity, I think. And to be in service of her is actually extremely challenging from a musical standpoint. I didn’t work with her for about 15 years. I worked with her from ’80 til ’83, and then I didn’t work with her for 15 years.
And I started working again with her again in ’98; by the time ’98 came around, she had done punk music, prog music, blues music, techno music, big band music. She had done all these things and Nina does not ask me what would be hard to do. She says, ‘I wanna do that song, that song, that song, that song, and that song’. And we have to somehow be able to. So just I’m talking about myself, I’m not talking about Nina, the challenge of that is really, really intense. She’s the kind of person that will say at soundcheck, ‘I wanna do this song now,’ but that’s a techno song that has all samples and programming, how the fuck are we gonna do that?
And, ‘I wanna do this big band song.’ Well, we’re five musicians on stage. How are we gonna do a big band song? And I found out that big band music without a big band is called lounge music. That’s when you can’t afford the big band, but you’re doing these classics. And all you’ve got is a guy on piano, and I’m not really a jazz pianist. I’m sharing my experience of playing with her to give her an idea of her personality. She is always in full regalia. She is always Nina Hagen. She is never not what you see in all those photos. And in that music, she is 100% committed and 100% unique and exceptional and different from any human being that I’ve ever met.
And I think her work sometimes suffers for that, you know, because she’s so…. with NunSexMonkRock that was her big chance to break in America. And they hired a producer who had done Soft Cell, Mike Thorne, and they hired Paul Shaffer from the Letterman show, and drummer Allan Schwartzberg. Like they hired pro guys to make a hit record. She is going to make the record she wants to make, and she moves fast too. She’s not a person that polishes. And she, she like, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Onto the next thing. So yeah, she’s intense.
For more info, visit kittenrobot.com/artist/paul-roessler/