In his first interview in years, English musician Pop Levi, reveals he has been living on the Greek island of Ithaca for the past year and a half, holed up in a hillside villa creating ‘endless’ cassette recordings of new jams, while looking out onto clear blue seas and lush green valleys unspoiled by the modern world.
POP LEVI: I didn’t go to bed last night. I’ve been awake for two days, now it’s lunchtime on the second day of no sleep.
You haven’t started crashing yet?
PL: [Laughs] Not yet, I’m going to save it until tonight to.
What’s inspired this trip to Greece?
PL: I’ve been coming here for 20 years, this time I’ve kind of stayed for the last year and a half and I occasionally go to Los Angeles. I prefer it here.
When did you first go to Greece?
PL: Oh that’s a long story, a long family story. I’m on an island with less than 3,000 people, beautiful weather, you can swim most of the year in the sea – it’s really nice here. It’s nice to be close to nature and be able to work on things in your own time. It’s a very quiet, solitary kind of life.
Sounds like my kind of life!
PL: It’s good but I haven’t left the island for five months. I can’t wait to leave actually.
Do you consider the island a ‘magick’ place for you? I ask because in an old interview with you, you talked about getting deep into magick and feeling like you’d have to go to a magick place, which at the time you said was Los Angeles.
PL: It’s pretty magick here. You can go to the top of mountains to monasteries and look at the Milky Way, if you’re into that kind of ‘extreme nature’. It’s good. I had enough of living in cities for a while; living in cities kind of got me down. Cities run a bit weird. I’m not sure what’s happening in the cities now [laugh] in fact I have no idea. I actually don’t want to go live in a city again to be honest. I can’t live in England again, I haven’t lived there for eight years or so, it feels good.
What have you been working on while on the island?
PL: I’ve been making endless cassette recordings for a future album I want to put together. I’ve been getting back to making music on Dictaphones. Somehow next year I would like to release that stuff. That’s pretty much all I’ve been doing, just centring on that daily. I’ve been doing a little bit of rehearsing for my upcoming shows.
I’ve read that at times you’ve used a technique called scrying to write songs.
PL: I haven’t done that for a while. I’ve moved on from that because I’ve found other ways to do it.
That was my next question; what other techniques have you been using.
PL: I’ll tell you one thing I’ve really loved doing lately and that’s singing improvising into a mic and then listening back to what I’ve sung and then making lyrics out of it. Y’know what I’m saying? It kind of sounds like something and then that becomes the lyrics. Something that sounds good sounds good! I’m into the sound more than the meaning.
I understand that you like it best when songs come to you naturally. I read somewhere that you made a decision to not really sit down and write songs but just go about your day and let songs come to you.
PL: Usually I keep songs in my head for a while before I play it or anything. They’re always the best songs to me. It’s hard to make good songs now. I wish I could release more to be honest. I’ve been making stuff at an increasing rate for the last four years but nobody wants to put out my records, it’s really depressing. [Laughs] but that’s life really isn’t it?
I do know how you feel Pop. I’ve been working on one project for ten years and can’t find someone to put it out.
PL: Yeah, no one says it was going to be easy. It’s probably better when it’s a little bit tough, a bit of a challenge for us. Are you into Ethiopian music?
To be honest, I haven’t really heard a lot.
PL: You should check it out on YouTube. It’s amazing! That’s all that I listen to.
With your new record, Medicine that comes out in November you started recording it in a converted mountain-side barn in Norway; how did you come to that location?
PL: It started in March 2009 and then it took three and half years to finish. I found the place through a friend of mine that recorded Blue Honey. I got together with him, he is Norwegian, and he had just brought a farm about two hours outside of Oslo in the southern mountains. We were the first ones to record in there. It’s a nice place to record.
The record creation was then moved to White Arc studio in Los Angeles that you built?
PL: Yeah. I built it myself in Echo Park. It’s since been taken down since I left there. I had that up and running for around 18 months or so working on things. I was working on the recordings I did in Norway but I ended up recording some new things. I finished the mixing off in Greece.
Where you are now?
PL: Yes, it’s a home studio on the side of a hill. It’s a little bit of a weird place to make music. My only contact is through the internet. I like the idea though because I don’t want my music to sound like anyone else’s. I want it to have bits of all sorts of things. Overall I want it to have a real flavour that sticks out. That’s the idea. I’m imagining it when I’m on to my 20th album. I’m creating a world there, that’s my dream.
Do you find that the difference in environment that you record in has a different effect on the music you’re making?
Even though the new album was made in three different countries it has a real cohesive feel to it.
PL: Cool, that’s good. It’s all a little bit of an illusion isn’t it? You can make things go well together, they don’t have to sound the same. The Beatles are a good example aren’t they?
PL: They always sound different but they always sound the same too, I like that.
That’s what I was going to say about your music and your flavour.
PL: That’s really good to hear, brilliant!
What’s your favourite thing about the record?
PL: The two colours of the font writing, the yellow and the green [laughs]. That’s my favourite thing about it. And, possibly the little fade out of Strawberry Shake, I like that.
Did you learn anything about yourself while making it?
PL: Four years is a long time to work on something, I’ve lived in different places and have had different feelings. I certainly don’t feel the same as when I put out my first album. I had dreams of putting out an album once a year but it didn’t turn out like that. I want to find a new fresh way where I can put something out every year instead of once every four years, it’s depressing.
Is this your last record for Ninja Tune?
POP LEVI: I’m not signed to anyone now. I’m thinking about what I might do.
Do you have any ideas yet?
PL: I’m probably just going to release loads of things like cassette recordings on my own before I get involved with a label, because I know they won’t let me do it. I want to do that for a while and maybe tour for a while and think about making a proper full length Pop Levi album. I have some ideas.
I can give you some links and contacts for some cool labels doing awesome handmade releases and that specialise in releasing vinyl, cassettes and things other than just digital downloads.
PL: I like that stuff. There’s something to be said for making physical things. I don’t buy digital records, I want to go to the shop and have a look around.
Totally! I love reading liner notes and lyrics in the booklet.
PL: Yeah, yeah! It’s all died and is moving towards where the #1 records aren’t even made by humans—that’s going to happen in our life time.
I remember years ago when one of my friends that is in to hip hop predicted that in the future people will have the tools enabling them to easily record music at home and that’s obviously happened with things like Pro Tools, Garage Band, Reason, Acid and all the other programs you can get to make music with.
PL: That’s just the beginning as well. It will go into crazy worlds of making it impossible for what we call ‘musicians’ to get heard.
A friend works as a teacher, showing people how to record and he said that one day when he was showing a student how to program drums they were amazed to learn that there was just no general pop or hip hop etc. beats that came already made. They didn’t realise they had to make it themselves.
PL: See, exactly! That’s because they’re not into. That’s because they’re not musicians.
Do you still have an interest in mathematics and geometry?
PL: Not an active interest that I have had in the past.
You have a bit of an obsession with boxing?
PL: I love boxing [laughs].
I read in a Miles Davis bio book that he loved the discipline, endurance, strength and breath work of boxing.
PL: It’s all of that and more. It’s a weird thing. It’s pretty good. I think boxing movement is all about three time. If you’re thinking in fours you can’t move properly. Ethiopian music is all in three time. I like keeping fit and playing sport. I’m really into daily running, working out and playing tennis, and swimming. All those things are really good when you’ve just been behind the computer screen for the past 12 hours. I’m really into Sonny Liston and Sugar Ray Robinson. Especially Sugar Ray Robinson. He’s amazing. He’s a true artist. He’s dancer turned world champion boxer y’know. [laughs]. I love that whole world. Hey, hey can you hear that? It’s the clock in the village square where I am sitting.
I thought you were outside because I could hear ‘outside’ noises like birds tweeting and a dog barking in the distance.
PL: Yeah, exactly. I’m sitting in the shade looking out over the Aegean Sea, which is the west side of the Mediterranean, about 70 miles into the distance looking onto mountains. There’s a bit of graffiti next to me that says: I’ll always be in your hearts. [Laughs].
Have you read anything interesting lately?
PL: Well sadly this entire summer, I’ve been reduced to reading books that I’d read before because I didn’t bring any new books and I haven’t left and there’s no book shops here. Right now I’m reading, for the third time, Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises which I love. I love that book!
How much longer will you be in Greece for?
PL: Two weeks. I have to go rehearse with my group and play a launch show in London in November. Then I’m going to L.A. to do some recording. Don’t know what’s happening next year. No idea.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
PL: I’d say it’s a good thing. If things are planned it doesn’t usually happen does it.
I find the best times I go out are usually the nights that are never planned. People just rock up and go ‘hey, let’s go out.’
PL: That sounds fun! I haven’t been out on that kind of thing for a really long time, it’s so quiet here. There are one or two bars, which I don’t go to.
Do you do anything like meditating?
PL: Sometimes yeah, when I get the time on my own. I do like meditating. One of the best times to do it is during rain storms.
Do you practice a particular form of meditation?
PL: I have my own regime and little things that I like to do. Finding a comfortable position and thinking on a geometrical shape. Trying to think of positive things. Not even that, just trying to think of pure positivity. I spend a lot of my time trying not to be depressed [laughs]. That’s why I do active things and meditate.
What are the big things that depress you?
PL: Maybe if my record sells well I won’t be depressed. It’s funny when you give up your life to try to make music and there’s sometimes endless months of…not being involved. I guess if you’re really successful you can always be involved. But I don’t know about that. I’m much more of an underground artist really. …Check out my new song Teen Girlfriend. That’s my favourite jam right there. I wish that was my new release to be honest…that’s what I feel right now.
*Photos courtesy of Pop’s Greek adventures and fb.