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Jermy Leeuwis/MusicRemedy [Q]: First off, your album 'R U With Me' is coming out. What's the story behind the album?
Paul Avion [A]: The song "R U With Me" is a prayer. Spirituality of some kind (any kind) has been a big part of the last few years of my life. I also like quantum mechanics, so some of this stuff ends up in songs, for better or worse.
It's also about what the gurus call "duality." Our life is an endless pattern of high and low moods, based on things that happen to us, because the world is split into things we like and dislike: good and bad events that make us happy or sad. When we find the divine, in the form of meditation or prayer, theoretically we become free of the world's ability to tug us around, because there's only the spiritual there. It's also a song about death ("at the end of the show"), and forgetting the trivia of the world to focus on the spiritual, however you perceive that to be. For some people it's a god.
I was listening to a lot of ELO earlier this year, so I gave it kind of a sci-fi adventure twist. That was the idea, anyway.
[Q]: You released three albums before going national. What did you have to do to go national with your new album?
[A]: Money. I saved for at least couple of years, living as close to the bone as possible (my apartment at Sunset Junction is 200 square feet, for example, which means it's basically a bedroom with an attached kitchen. Although it beats the place I was in before, near the Silverlake Lounge, which was a 100-sq. foot room with a bed and a stove side-by-side, no kitchen. I'd make Tang using water from the bathtub, which ... just felt wrong. Although I was so excited to be in LA, they were still good times.)
But even that wasn't enough to do all the things you really need to do: hire a PR and radio promotion company, not to mention the price of recording, manufacturing, mastering and shipping. Postage alone to mail the CDs to radio was $550; imagine that! My bank actually froze my debit card after I left the post office, and I had to call them and let them know it was me who bought the $550 worth of stamps.
But two years of savings wasn't quite enough; the deciding factor was the passing of my grandmother last year, who was in her 90s. She left me just enough money that, when combined with my savings, finally gave me enough to release the record.
There's a saying in LA that most of the successful musicians here are trust fund kids, and I always though that was an exaggeration. And there certainly are successful musicians whose parents aren't doctors or lawyers or whatever. And all the money in the world won't buy you success. But after this, I see the point so clearly, and it's sad.
The good news for me is, after recording and releasing stuff to pretty much no one for so long, I finally was able to release something to a wider audience. Unfortunately for me, the money's pretty much gone now, so it means back to looking for some kind of job, and now it's a recession. But I'm not too worried.
All I really need nowadays is a candle that smells like firewood, a walk, some prayer, and maybe this stray cat I recently rescued. By necessity, my needs have gotten pretty simple. But it's also meant a lot of freedom, for better or worse.
[Q]: What is with you and 'pataphor'?
[A]: Haha, something I made up, I can't quite remember how. Wait, it's coming back to me. I visited Spain when I was a kid and saw a surrealist play called Ubu Rey by Alfred Jarry. I bought a book about Jarry and read about "'pataphysics," which is a concept he invented that's "as far from metaphysics as metaphysics is from reality." The gist is it's kind of an intriguing joke: you can see it as a parody, but it also describes a sketchy conceptual universe that's parallel to our own, with metaphysics as the in-between.
One night I had a dream with a character called "Dr. Hugged-Too-Late", which I thought was a funny name, so I wrote a story where Dr. Hugged-Too-Late was describing 'pataphysics to Jaal Walsh, a raccoon-like spacefarer character I'd come up with as a kid.
"Pataphors" just sort of evolved as I was writing the story.
I seem to remember sitting at my Dad's computer and writing it while listening to Steely Dan's Can't Buy a Thrill over and over. So there are some references to that album's lyrics in the story.
There! That's more than you ever wanted to know about me, 'pataphysics, or my sleep patterns.
[Q]: Did you manage to get a couple of pataphors on your album? If so, could you point us in the right direction, or is your entire album a pataphor (including its title)?
[A]: No, but that's a good idea!
To be honest I was trying to keep the pataphor thing separate from the music for a long time. I figured it was just confusing (and probably is).
But then I saw Devendra Banhart, who I like (I only know his music because he's from the 'hood) has his visual art on his website, so I thought: "Well, maybe I can do that, too."
[Q]: What is your main goal as an artist?
[A]: I guess to be a "sound explorer" like Joni Mitchell.
So often people listen to just one (maybe two) of my songs and say "Oh, Paul Avion sounds like Belle & Sebastian / fill-in-blank."
The funny thing is, I'm almost completely ignorant about modern music, and I've still never heard 1 song by Belle & Sebastian, for example. They must have similar influences. I only listen to older music: the Beatles, Dylan, Elvis Costello, Serge Gainsbourg, Joni Mitchell, Jobim, ELO, Leonard Cohen, etc.
Very occasionally I go to YouTube to listen to a song by a modern artist, out of curiosity, but that's rare. I don't listen to the radio or watch TV, so I'm woefully ignorant about pop culture. I still don't know who Kanye West is, for example, or lots of other people: they're just names I see.
I think of myself, for better or worse, as an old-school songwriter, like Bacharach, Jobim or Leonard Cohen, but with less talent.
The point is, I like to write songs, and to me a good song is one that, when you strip all the production away, could be played on an acoustic guitar in front of a campfire, and people would dig it.
That's how I want my songs to be, and that's how I'd like R U With Me to be viewed, as a collection of songs, not as a trendy, one-trick-pony style-statement.
[Q]: When creating a track, do you have a set theme and pre-written lyrics, or do you start with an idea or the music first?
[A]: Fortunately I get a lot of songs from dreams, which is helpful. I keep a tape recorder by my bed. They come in waves: I'll have practically nothing for 6 months, then suddenly a bunch night after night, probably because I'm not sleeping well.
"Henry Sage" was a song I heard a dream, and so was "R U With Me": actually that was two dreams I smushed together. Other songs from dreams were "Menage," "OIe," "Stand Up Be a Man," and "Stop Joseph Kony".
Songs while awake were "Slow and Steady," "Gentle Mary," and "Mombasa".
[Q]: You travelled/moved quite a lot. Which move changed you the most as a person and your music?
[A]: Paris showed me there was no such thing as escape. Just like Hemingway said in The Sun Also Rises: "Going to another country doesn't make any difference. You can't get away from yourself by moving to another place. There's nothing to that.'"
I read that but somehow didn't believe it. I always thought if I moved to France I would be free: of myself, my shy tendencies, even of music. I would live in some magic world with lots of friends and total freedom from stress, maybe become a cheese maker on a farm.
In France, for the first time I realized moving doesn't change anything. I was the exact same person who feels uncomfortable about the exact same things, and on top of it there was less sun than LA.
So I moved back and started focusing on changing the inside, which is something that's still ongoing, though I'm finally seeing some progress.
[Q]: One of the places you moved to was Africa. Naturally, Africa is not the only place with slums (i.e., India, even the USA, etc...). Why did you choose to give attention to the Africa's slums and not their economic growth and wellness?
[A]: For some reason I've been Googling pictures of the Kibera slum for some years, and I finally wanted to see it first-hand. My Dad's from Ecuador (my Mom's Scots-Welsh, "the more you know"), and I would go to South America as a kid to see my paternal grandparents and see these kids everywhere with no shoes, selling candy.
It's always interested me how people in the United States have such a different idea of poverty and problems than the rest of the world. And it's not that we don't have problems and poverty here: of course we do. But in the majority, what people perceive as "poverty" in this country ("I live in a one-story house!" / "make $20,000 a year!") is absurd.
And the real irony is, our wealth obsession makes so many of us less happy than many of our African counterparts.
The place I lived in Kenya had no toilet seat, water and electricity were off frequently, no hot water capability, and roaches everywhere. (Deeper in the slums there's no plumbing or electricity at all.) Outside people burn their trash, and a little further in, go to the bathroom in plastic bags and throw them in the street or (if you're lucky) in a ditch. Kids walk on all of this sewage with no shoes. Carts sell decayed food covered in flies. (And if you don't believe me, see the vids on my site.)
When I got back, everything seemed beautiful.
Ideally, I'd like to see more gratitude here at home, and help inspire Africans and the US government to demand more from African governments, who are the root of Africa's problems.
And to grumpy people (I hear this a lot) who say: "Wait, we need to help Americans!" I say: "I agree." "Help" isn't a mutually exclusive proposition.
We need to help everyone. Pick your cause -- here or abroad -- and get busy.
People who say "We need to help Americans, not Africans!" are generally people not doing anything for either group. Folks helping Americans have too much heart, and don't have time, to make comments like that.
[Q]: What is your current location? Any future moving-plans?
[A]: I am back in Silver Lake / Sunset Junction, though the crime here is a little bad, so I'd like to move to Eagle Rock, which is nearby and has a nice, small town feel. Unfortunately I got tired of sleeping on a single mattress on the floor and just used the last of my money to buy a decent bed for myself, so I now I realize I'd have to move that, and I hate moving. So ...
[Q]: What collaborations could your fans look out for in the future?
I can name a dozen artists I'd like to collaborate with, from Devendra Banhart to Jenny Lewis, Giant Drag, Elvis Costello, or even Joni Mitchell or Paul McCartney, if I wanted to go nuts in fantasyland. But I'm guessing it's going to be just me for awhile longer.
[Q]: Recently, what is a typical day like for you?
[A]: Get up, feed the rescued stray (hope she doesn't scratch me), go to IKEA for breakfast, then maybe walk around the zoo or Target, come home, do any promo work that needs to be done (endless list that takes until evening), prayer / meditation (I suck at meditating, very good at prayer), then put in a movie and fall asleep.
Soon it'll be back to commute / office temp / commute back, sleep. I'm ready.
[Q]: Final words?
[A]: I'm grateful, man. Just grateful.