Keith Levene:
SPEX Magazine, November 1983 (Germany)

Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens

© 1983 SPEX


Interview by Wilfried Ruetten (New York, summer 1983)

Keith Levene; circa 1979 © unknownAfter years of cult status, great appreciation and only small public resonance it seems the time for PIL has come. Yet the crucial innovators Jah Wobble (bass) and Keith Levene (guitar,keyboards, synthesizer) have left the band long ago (like Wobble) or just recently (like Levene). While Jah Wobble was something like the natural band genius, autodidact and spiritual sound seeker (see SPEX 1/80 and 7/81), and John Lydon figurehead, singer and chaotic person, Keith Levene was rather the man in the background, a musician who generated most of the innovations in sound and chaotic constructions. Wilfried Ruetten talked with a self-confident but never bragging Keith Levene in New York.

LEVENE: "I have left Public Image Ltd. and I'm doing my own thing now. My company is called 'Multi-Image Corporation'. And regarding my musical ideas, I just want to do 'multi-music'. The material is there, but mainly I want to produce other people. Actually I want to produce soundtracks for films, and I'm very interested in jingles and commercials too. I'm living in the United States now and I am married to an American."

SPEX: "What about PIL now?"

LEVENE: "Only John Lydon and Martin Atkins are left. And there had been problems between them and me. With Martin the problem was rather musical rivalry than anything personal. But it had become impossible to talk reasonably with John. He just couldn't be bothered to do anything. Regarding my situation within PIL, I was a person with many ideas and I wanted to realize these ideas with and through PIL. But they weren't interested. On the contrary, they were building up barriers and weren't interested in ideas. Or rather, they were interested but didn't understand them. Lydon says the separation has been amicable but that's not true. I should have left PIL a year ago. Regarding the band, it had worked on a one-man level for long anyway. And I was of the opinion that this one man was me, and I left. Okay? As long as I was in the band I considered it as a common thing and everything was done in a common way. But it turned out that ...there comes a point when you're fed up with it. So I'm really glad not being part of it anymore and not being John's friend anymore, and I 'don't respect him as an artist anymore too."

(During this tirade Levene gets faster and faster as if he had thought it over a hundred times already and doesn't want to hear it anymore. His language is full of reassurances with the listener like 'you know', 'okay', 'like' and similar phrases. And despite his new residence in New York he kept a strong Cockney accent. This and his surprising 'normality' for a cult figure was very similar to Jah Wobble. But his anti-Lydon tirade is over as quickly as it started.)

LEVENE: "Regarding Lydon, I had a deep respect for his abilities as an artist, yes I thought he was 'great'! But now I don't want to have anything to do with him anymore. The concept of PIL will be continued with my 'Multi-Image Corporation'. And concerning the PIL name: Lydon can run around and call himself PIL all he likes. Legally I own half of the name, but I don't want to be PIL anymore, I want to start something new! I'm trying to express myself in as many multiple ways as possible. No, I'm rather interested in soundtracks for video games, films, jingles and admittedly in commercial singles. It's true I'm under contract with Virgin Records in a way, but that's handled mutually rather vaguely. So I'm in a rather independent position and can give myself time. One of the things PIL wanted to be in the USA was being 'independent'. And I will continue that way. I'm not interested in dollars, rather in research scholarships. I'm fed up with being motivated by money."

SPEX: "Virgin don't have a reputation for leaving their artists in peace."

LEVENE: "Being signed to Virgin can have its advantages. It's true they aren't 'new new' anymore but they are still taking risks. But the understanding between PIL and Virgin was never optimal, they didn't do much to promote our albums although they have good people. They still have the tapes for a further PIL album but I'm not involved in mixing it. We had called the album 'Commercial Zone', I had written the music."

SPEX: "Perhaps it was a wrong decision to move to the USA?"

LEVENE: "We never made much fuss about it, I had come over on my own and could arrange this video show at The Ritz. So I brought over the band. There was a punch-up at the gig which made the whole thing interesting at least visually and earned us a lot of publicity. So the outlook was quite good at the start but, like, things just didn't happen. We had lots of difficulties to record the album, which probably will not be released now. We also had no deal for the USA because we left Warner Brothers. Because Warner had boycotted us downright. Despite the fact that they had given us a 75,000 dollar advance for the album! But they hadn't released our first album, then 'Metal Box' without the metal can in a paper sleeve, and then with the third record they threatened to fire members of their staff if they did anything to make the album a success! And two people were actually dismissed! But at the time when the Pistols had split and I had left The Clash our contracts were really quite good. That I left The Clash was actually alright. I just didn't want to be involved in all this..."

SPEX: "In what?"

LEVENE: "I didn't want to have anything to do with rock'n'roll, and neither with preaching politics. I think The Clash are really honest, but they absolutely don't know what they are talking about. I'm not interested in preaching politics, I'm interested in 'interesting art'. The reason I left The Clash? Listen to The Clash and listen to PIL, and you'll know! And just like with Paul Simonon in The Clash we teached Wobble to play bass. But Wobble was great! He wasn't conditioned to 'rock' at all. Wobble never knew what the others were doing, and he never played something like rock'n'roll in the slightest. And he made up his own bass lines. Just terrific. It had a big influence on the sound of early PIL music. He left because of the conflicts he had with John, and with me too, because he had stolen my music for his album. I can respect that: good for him!"

SPEX: "What made 'Metal Box' special for you?"

LEVENE: "It was three twelve inch singles without an example in a traditional way, the music was conceived for maximum volume, there were no rules and it developed spontaneously for a large part. It's just an album, I dunno! But in the moment my main interest lies in film. Film, not video, because video is just an electronical process. I'm occupied with computer graphics for video games and even with computer graphics for simulations, and because they look interesting. But it's very difficult to get access to the appropriate devices. That is more time consuming than anything else. We're talking about costs of thousands of dollars per second!"

SPEX: "And where are these facilities?"

LEVENE: "Please don't ask. I'm working on it since eighteen months and I'll succeed. With a bit of luck I'll be able to work with the MAGI SynthaVision."

SPEX: "---?"

LEVENE: "It means Mathematical Applications Group, Incorporated. They did the electronics for the 'TRON' movie and work for General Motors in the field of computer supported designs, and they also make TV commercials. I'm heavily into the computer branch, I'm occupied with artificial intelligence and the big devices like 'Creon' and 'Cyber 12-5'. But the whole matter has one big disadvantage: you have to be involved in the development of something like an MX missile, teaching it artificial intelligence which tells the missile how to reach its target, if you want to get into real interesting graphics. They use the 'Creon' for it, that's the biggest computer on the market which costs around 11 million dollars, and everybody who works with it is under government surveillance so nobody deciphers secret codes. But without the Department of Defence budget there wouldn't be any computers. The Pentagon is the biggest client. And what they want is super-intelligent pilotless flying devices. There's a lot of good programmers around who are just doing the wrong things. Nelson Max for instance has designed beautiful works of art on the computer. Now he works on teaching missiles not to confuse trees with a target. I don't know what's the reason for it, but all the intelligent people who are into computers are working for the government, and they just don't question the things they are doing. They don't care whether they are blowing things up or not. And during their work they design all these wonderful computer simulations which are just about testing shock absorbers or about pressures a metal part has to sustain. To me it looks very nice. But machines with 400 millions calculations a second are still being needed for the arms race in space, because they want to place laser weapons up there. I'm in search for young scientists who don't work for the government. But I am rather on my own so far."


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Keith Levene; circa 1979 © unknown
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