Chris Leo
sept 2005
e-mail interview by SEB WOOd -

This is an interview with Chris Leo, formerly of Native Nod, The Van Pelt, The Lapse and now known as Vague Angels, or just Chris Leo. Fifth Plant Press released his first novel entitled White Pigeons which contains an album by Vague Angels: chapter 7 is in fact a cd recording of the protagonist’s fictitious band ‘as played by Chris Leo’s latest venture Vague Angels’. Sultans of Sentiment by The Van Pelt is probably in my 10 favorite albums list and The Lapse’s Heaven Ain’t Happenin’ is an album I regularly listen to, so I guess there are a lot of fan questions here… Sorry.


SEB WOOd: Did you first come up with the idea of writing a book and write one chapter as an album or were you writing a book and an album in parallel and it just seemed the right thing to do to put them together ??

White Pigeon is about a relationship seen in retrospect : the first six chapters are analeptic of the love affair to come, the seventh chapter – that is the album – is supposed to be the love story and the last two are the narrator’s remorse about his lost love. Is this singular structure a device to put the album into relief ??

Chris Leo : Here are my answers: to 1 and 2: Allow me to invoke the artistic cliche, Sebastien : these things take on lives of their own. I wasn't aware that the book and album I was working on separately were part of the same piece until I was two chapters into the book and five songs into the album. Though sometimes I feel myself spread to thin working on different projects at once, the truth is once you get them going you want nothing more than to race back to them every chance you get and find out what their new news is. So when you ask if Chapter Seven functioning as the romance in present tense, or the closest thing to present tense, is a structural device I will take credit for it, but I swear it was not in my control. It wrote itself in.

SW: The album telling a love story from its beginning to its end, be it in winding ways, it feels like a concept album which reminds me, even if the music is quite different, of Lisa Germano’s (Excerpts from a) Love Circus. Do you know this album and what do you feel about it ??

CL: I don't know her album. Rite's of Spring's only album was the first beginning to end relationship concept album I've heard. Heard it?

SW: Was the music directed by the protagonist and its fictitious band ?? Would you have made different arrangements if it was just an album ?? I’m asking this question because for example I feel that the instrumental track is far away from your style.

CL: The music was directed by the the protagonist and his ficticious band. The album is also a break in a story about breaks though and the instrumental track is yet another break in that break. I even arranged its placement according to phi, 1.6++ ad infinitum, belaboring the issue of the mysteries within beyond any sober serious debate so I only thought it appropriate that the break deepest within was a comical break.

SW: I’m a very big fan of The Van Pelt’s Sultans of Sentiment. I have been wondering from a long time what is “Nanzen kills a cat” about ?? The Nanzen character who comes from a karate movie is referred to in White Pigeon as well, so what is the thing with Nanzen ??

CL: No, Nantzen was not refered to as a character in a karate movie though we can put him there as well. Nantzen is a character from an ancient Zen koan. In the koan a cat strolls into a temple and two buddhist monks argue over who gets him. The head priest is called in to settle the debate. He tells them that is they can't settle the issue themselves he will cut the cat in half and give them each their half. Unable to resolve the debate, the head priest cuts the cat in half to the dismay and confusion of all present. In walks Nantzen, a monk who was out for a stroll when the argument took place. Nantzen sees the scene, puts his sandals on his head, and walks back out of the temple. The head priest proclaims, "If Nantzen were here this cat would still be alive!" Or at least that's my version of the koan.

SW: It reminds me of a Bible episode in which two women argue over a child. Someone comes and says he will cut the child in two and give each woman half. Then one woman says that she’s not the mother and that he can give the child to the other one. But the man gives her the baby saying that only the real mother could do that… Anyway is ‘Nanzen kill a cat’ just about the koan ??

CL: Nantzen is of course not just a koan. I would never just retell someone elses story in song. In fact, I barely retold it in the song. I even think it's not necessary to be familiar with the koan to get the song. Maybe I even mussed things up by delving into a discussion of the koan at all! Uh oh, back up and remove everything you know about Nantzen and start afresh. Yes, that the only way. There it is.

SW: There is a third untitled The Lapse album, devoid of song titles, that can be found on peer to peers. Some songs are featured in different versions in the Vague Angels cd. Were they initially songs for The Lapse ??

CL: Exactly. I began recording the songs as a Lapse album and changed my mind once the full picture started to rear its head.

SW: In the Vague Angels lyrics, you mention a lot of different places, why is that ??

CL: Where do you believe story is embedded? Of course it's in the air, but it's in the soil as well.

SW: It just conveys the feeling of someone stuck in NYC but always referring to other places as if he had a strong longing for traveling but somehow couldn’t… maybe because of NYC itself...

CL: You got it completely. If he could just slow down he'd realize NYC IS also all of these places, but to slow down would extricate him from the City. He'd be living amongst people and buildings, but not within the City, which it's also obvious he loves -- even believes in.

SW: It seems to me that you oriented yourself towards subdued, if not acoustic music in the end of Van Pelt. There are nice acoustic songs on Heaven Ain’t Happening too. Why did you kinda go back to something more ‘rock’. What do you intend to do in the near future ??

CL: I have two projects I'm working with now. The next Vague Angels album "Let's Duke It Out At Kilkenny Katz' " will come out in February 2006 on Pretty Activity Records. Of the ten songs on this record, only one has drums. I also play guitar for the Glaswegian band Pro Forma who have an ep coming out on Paul Thompson from Franz Ferdinand's label New! Records soon. No distorted guitar (yet) but tons of percussion. I like your idea that playing "rock" is "going back." Your idea then is that the progression is from distorted and loud to smooth and quiet? I wished my life took that course. It's a great sentiment, but I wasn't put on that road. Oh no, old age looks like the biggest bitch yet to come.

SW: Well a lot of bands go from distorted and loud to smooth and quiet. There are a lot of examples. You mentioned Rites of Spring… Fugazi has been smoothing up its music by gradations since their first album… I’ve read that another novel by Chris Leo is coming out next year ?? Can you talk about it and will it feature another album ??

CL: The next novel is called "57 Octaves Below the Middle C Buzzed by the Bee" and instead of featuring an album it will be filled with illustrations by Marcellus Hall, the same artist that did the cover to White Pigeons. this time I tried to fit the music I was writing at the time in but it just seemed vulgar.

SW: I think the fifth planet website said that this new album "Let's Duke It Out At Kilkenny Katz'" would be part of the new novel ??

CL: Yeah, I should clarify. The second novel is called "57 Octaves Below The Middle C Buzzed by the B." It doesn't come with an album, but I wrote "Let's Duke it Out at Kilkenny Katz' " while I was writing the novel so the themes overlap. "Kilkenny Katz'" will come out on Pretty Activity in February. "57 Octaves" will come out on Fifth Planet Press in the fall of 2006.

SW: Are you planning on forming a new band ??

CL: No plans. I play it as it comes. I'm touring with Pro Forma twice this Fall, in between I'm doing a Vague Angels Euro tour with me and a stand up bass player inbetween, then I'm touring Denmark and Sweden solo with readings between the songs, and right before Christmas I tour the UK with a full band Vague Angels line up.

SW: You mention the Twin Towers some times in the book. What did you feel about September 11 th ?? When I talked with Enon, they told me that they were in NYC at the time and that it was a pretty freaking experience. Where you there at the time too ??

CL: I was there. I can tell you this, everyone was awake to see it even though it happened so early. Everyone has a surreal story to tell.

SW: Do people take you for your brother, or vice versa ??

CL: All the time. I'm a bit darker though.

SW: No offense but sometime your book reminds me of Sex and the City because it often deals with sex and with New York. From here, it seems to share this particular relationship to NYC, considering the city as a person, if not a friend… Plus, whatever the characters do, the city is always present, from poetry to sex, from music to food, etc. It’s like a big shady omniscient force. What do you feel about that ??

CL: In my next novel the City is the protagonist. New York City is its own quintessential New Yorker. Yes, Candice Bushnell, me, and the other seven million of us love her. It's a commonality that binds every caste and color. Lucky.

SW: There is a passage I like very much in the novel (p.39): when the character meets a girl whose (let me paraphrase your words) record collection is so perfect that it is ugly. This is one of the clues indicating that the book was written by someone listening to indie music. I guess you’re a manic record collector, right ??

CL: This is an apt follow up to the last question. A few things keep me from being: lack of space in NYC, incessant touring gives me a lack of home, and my love for books outweighs my love for records. I was out for a stroll a few weeks ago and came across the first American edition of Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities" for $400. I bought it for $350 and now I'm reselling it because I need the cash. I just wanted to hold it for a bit. Also, most musicians will tell you they like the lights dimmed or off when mixing. It's easier to hear in the dark, so the actual possession of something that holds music doesn't thrill me as much as looking at the printed word.

SW: There is a Van Pelt song about making list and the list theme comes around a few times in White Pigeon. So what do you feel about making lists ?? Does it still feel like: ‘Let’s make a list to feel like we’re accomplishing something’ ??

CL: Right. They're funny. A type of poem really. When I met with my editor a few weeks ago to edit "57 Octaves" the first thing she said to me was " what do you want to do about the excessive use of colons throughout the book?" Most people prefer commas. I like colons and Roman numerals.

Silly questions now :

“Was you ever bit by a dead bee” ??

I did step on a bee once and got stuck. Whether he was alive or dead first is unknown. He was definately dead afterwards.

What freaks the hell out of you ??

Hummers freak me out. Do you have those cars in Russia?

What’s your favorite chord ??

B flat.

Who is the best Lee ??

How about Bruce? He bought three races together at once in America without ever phrasing it as such: yellow, black, and white. Lee Iaccoca ran the company that built one of the best buildings in NYC, the Chrysler building -- and he also ran that company into the ground, so I guess I love him for that. The Chrsyler building remains with or without the company. Now we all own it.

What is your favourite pick-up line ??

"Ready? On the count of three: 1,2,3."

Who is under-rated ??

Colin Blunstone, Amy and Danny Leo, The Mars Volta, Moonshake, the hue of Afghani eyes, the Jews of Birobidkhan, Kreutzer, Simon Winchester, Friulian, Slovenian, and Austrian wines and everyone else on that longitude, the good Americans (there are millions of them)...

What is your favourite curse word ??

It still eludes me. Lot's of children live in my neighborhood so I've been trying to clean my mouth up. It'll be interesting to see what words take the place of my old curse words. I've heard myself say both "stupendous" and "congratulations" recently.

What question would you ask in this list of stupid questions ??

Hospital or jail?


Thanks !

/october 2005/