The list of instruments utilized on Tom Waits’s 2002 albums Blood Money and Alice is as impressive as it is extensive, but perhaps the most eye-catching inclusion is the mouse tambourine. Waits later explained this wasn’t a new kind of minuscule percussive instrument but a small silver buckle at the top of his motorcycle boot whose jangling had been picked up by studio microphones. Nevertheless, a tiny mouse-sized tambourine or even a tambourine made out of mice is precisely the kind of instrument you’d expect to appear on an album by British duo Psapp. Psapp fits the boffin/chanteuse profile of many of Britain’s most successful electronic acts—Everything but the Girl, Moloko, Matthew Herbert & Dani Siciliano—but where those have tended to be po-faced, studio buff Carim Clasmann and honey-voiced Galia Duran are playful. The pair’s recent single “Tricycle” featured a solo played on a mechanical chicken—a mechanical chicken called Brunhilde.
Psapp creates an idiosyncratic little universe where toy animals become musical instruments and cats, cartoon or otherwise, are king. (Snakes are very popular too.) Such willful oddness serves to decorate rather than drown their pretty electro-acoustic songs. Since the band’s acclaimed 2004 album Tiger, My Friend, it has signed with Domino Records and seen its song “Cosy in My Rocket” become internationally ubiquitous as the theme tune to ABC’s successful medical dramedy Grey’s Anatomy (a show that was no doubt pitched thus: “Ally McBeal! With stethoscopes!”). PopMatters caught up with the eccentric pair to discuss their new album, The Only Thing I Ever Want, sampling cutlery and ailurophilia.
People love to make up new words to describe your music: toytronica, clunktronica and my favorite, plip-plop-hop. How would you describe it?
Galia Duran: That’s always hard. I think we summed it up on our website, though, we put, “Psapp like making songs with little noises poking out.” That’s pretty much it. Genres are a bit like boundaries. Though plip-plop-hop is great and nicely open.
Carim Clasmann: Psapp-Non-Tronica maybe, or “Carim aquired an amazing asthmatic snake which he wants to feature on the next song, but instead Psapp spend all night in the studio making a song using exclusively thick rubber bands and voices; creating a song called “I Forgot the Snake”.
The album’s called The Only Thing I Ever Want. What is the only thing you ever want?
GD: Everything, everything, everything, constantly. At least three or four times a day I look at an object, a situation or feel an atmosphere and think it’s the only thing I ever wanted.
Your new album sounds less electronic than your last. Did you consciously set out to broaden your sound?
GD: No, not really. I think it was a pretty natural evolution to using more live instruments and less electronics than the first record. We’re followers of the ‘try that and see what happens’ philosophy, rather than having planning meetings beforehand and creating a concept before the music. That would just make lots of rules and musical boundaries and might prevent us from trying something. That’s not really our cup of tea.
CC: The Only Thing I Ever Wanted is probably a bit less electronic, but as we are working on a song-by-song basis we’re not really aware of stuff like this. We just work on a song until we’re happy with it and don’t straight away place it in context with other possible album tracks. We’re happy with whatever gets us excited and reflects our musical tastes. To us the new album has an ‘inside’ sound to it, as we recorded certain instruments at specific locations in the studio and all around the house. With Tiger, My Friend we captured a lot of the outside sound ambience around Kings Cross, in London. I really like it if a record has a real place and space you can hear, which gives it a specific location.
As we’ve come to expect from Psapp, the new album is full of odd noises and strange sounds. What kind of things have you sampled for this record? For example, what’s that zipping noise towards the end of “Tricycle”?
GD: Glad you asked. That is Brunhilde, the mechanical chicken. She came on tour with us but is a right little madam and had a tantrum in New York and refused to perform on stage. Carim’s since operated on her and she is much better behaved now.
Psapp - Tricycle
How do decide to use a noise? Do you deliberately seek sounds out, or is it a case of “Oh, I’ve dropped a fork, that’d sound good as a snare drum”?
GD: A bit of both. We don’t use a noise because of what the object is, though. We only use noises we like. Some are quite odd, like the crunching underfoot of a towpath or my mum’s garden table, but we also love pianos, violins, guitars, organs and cheap Casios. Mmm.
CC: We haven’t used a fork yet. But who knows what the future will bring?
The album has some lovely lyrics—and fine use of the word abacus. How do you write your songs? Do you have a theme in mind?
GD: Abacus is a lovely word; I was happy to get it in there. I’m glad someone noticed and approved. Usually there are several themes. One rarely has one single thought or atmosphere in their head at any one time. Our songs usually marry a couple of sometimes quite incongruous subjects. The record has songs about nursing homes, evangelism, eloping, the powerlessness you have over your genetic makeup and then more obvious themes mixed in—death, love, being snubbed, snubbing.
CC: It’s a bit like with the music. We like to capture the moment when we’re songwriting and having selected a subject beforehand doesn’t seem to work for us.
Your theme for Grey’s Anatomy could be on television for years to come. Do you worry that “Cosy in the Rocket” might become a bit of an albatross around your neck?
GD: I didn’t think of that at the time. It was an old song that we’d decided not to release, and when the show said they wanted it, we thought, Why not? Better than it going to waste. I feel so separated from the telly, so it didn’t really occur to us. If it makes people want to find out more about us, though, then it’s a great thing.
CC: It’s important not to get too distracted by where your music is used. Once it’s in the public domain, it gets a life of its own. As for albatrosses, let’s wait and see. What do albatrosses sound like? Maybe we’ll record some next when we’re at the seaside.
Psapp - Hi
You have a very strong visual image. All the artwork and videos I’ve seen are wonderful. Is that something you take an active part in?
GD: Yes. I do all the illustration for the band, and Carim is the king of layout. We tend to design pretty much everything ourselves. As for the videos, we’re very much involved in them too. It’s great having an idea and seeing it transformed into animation. All of our videos feature my drawings. The first proper video we did was just my drawings. I did about 200 drawings, which gave me a very sore hand for a couple of weeks.
CC: It all feels part of the world of Psapp, and it’s been growing alongside the music. It would be very strange to get someone else to do it.
What’s with all the cats? Your MySpace page looks like my great auntie’s house.
GD: Cats are brilliant: unpredictable, noble, stupid, spiky and soft all at the same time. I never tire of looking at pictures of cats. Cats feature on both our albums, too. The first album has a cat called Splodge the Cat and the new one features our new cat, called the Cat With No Name, who is very quiet. As a result, it’s very hard to hear when she appears on the record. Can we come round your great auntie’s house, please?
What do you have planned for the rest of the year?
GD: Lots. We’re doing a tour round the US in June and July [with Jose Gonzales and Juana Molina] and have plenty of shows lined up beforehand. We’re going to make lots of pipe-cleaner cats, write new songs, go out for some nice walks and hopefully try and convince a journalist that we will only do interviews in catteries or animal-rescue sanctuaries.
CC: Use more snakes in our songs, annoy the hell out of each other, surprise each other with finding new amazing noises to make up for being so annoying, feed the cat to get her to become more vocal, find a new studio space and hope for all greedy landlords to be expelled to some remote island where they all have to live in tents.
Psapp - About Fun