Tickled Pink

For the Legendary Pink Dots, madness is a soothing refuge from an intolerable world.

As a kid, Edward Ka-Spel endured his share of creepy bedtime stories -- along with horrible nightmares that hounded him until the age of ten.

"They were there, yeah," the fey frontman for the Legendary Pink Dots recalls with a laugh. "But I'm also English, so just a simple nursery rhyme usually relates to the plague, which sort of wiped out half of London, you know. With children skipping down the streets, smiling. I grew up in East London, very close to the Dickensian sort of districts where Jack the Ripper prowled around. The poorhouses were very much part of my makeup."

Overstimulated, underfed, but armed with an IQ of 160, Ka-Spel dreamt of becoming a musician ever since he was "shaking hands with crickets." Now pushing fifty, the reclusive, psychedelic tunesmith (who prefers to keep the actual name on his birth certificate confidential) has amassed an enormous back catalogue of over sixty albums, some of which unveiled other curious alter egos like Che Banana, D'Archangel and the Prophet Qa-Spel. En route to underground sainthood, Ka-Spel also garnered a sizable, cult-like international following. Die-hard fanatics, it seems, are eager to perpetuate the ongoing extensive mythology of all things Pink and Legendary -- including the sacred number 834, a figure that Ka-Spel ironically regards as the new mark of the beast.

Dot to dot: Phil "The Silverman" Knight (from left), 
Niels Van Hornblower, Edward Ka-Spel, Raymond 
Steeg and Erik Drost are the Legendary Pink Dots.
Ryan Moore
Dot to dot: Phil "The Silverman" Knight (from left), Niels Van Hornblower, Edward Ka-Spel, Raymond Steeg and Erik Drost are the Legendary Pink Dots.

Far from sounding demonic, however, the mysterious showman maintains a distinctive, childlike air. Ka-Spel actually sounds like Elmer Fudd when pronouncing words like "pwecious," "pwide" and "dwugs," though he claims no familiarity with Looney Tunes' reknowned bunny hunter. Calling from a pay phone in "Nowhere, Texas," he comments on the cruel fate of being a vegetarian in the heart of cattle country, "down to the last celery stick." On the final leg of the Dots' ninth American tour (the band was denied visas in 1990 for what the U.S. government deemed lack of artistic merit), Ka-Spel seems surprisingly upbeat -- a quality he finds absent in his fellow countrymen.

"The English don't express their emotions so much," Ka-Spel notes. "It's not done. People hold it in. They use code for one another. With another Englishman, I understand what's going on without anything even being said.

"In Britain, there's this total state of repressed violence," he continues. "Here it's up front, and when it happens, it's big. The rules are easier to follow here. But in England, where things aren't bursting out, a safety valve has to be found somewhere. And when that safety valve opens, it's like you get some of the dirtiest, darkest, meanest stuff flooding out. It's not necessarily a bad thing, 'cause it finds its way into art."

Ka-Spel's own creative floodgate opened in 1980 under the starry skies of Stonehenge, where he attended a free music festival with keyboardist and childhood pal Phil "The Silverman" Knight. Convinced they could do no worse musically, the pair acquired a vintage Korg synthesizer and a cheap piano with mysterious drops of pink nail polish on the keys that indicated chord progressions. (The splotches also inspired a better band name than their original, short-lived moniker: One Day.) After guitarist April White came aboard, the modest trio released several cassettes on its own Mirrordot imprint. Inspired by Syd Barrett, the Robyn Hitchcock-led Soft Machine and kraut-rock expansionists Faust and Can, early Pink efforts blended everything from children's voices, speeches by Margaret Thatcher and 'Sieg heil' chants into a grotesque sonic stew of airy, pastoral melancholy and noise mutation. The Dots began their own recurring trend of honoring tarot cards with 1984's conceptual long-player, The Tower.Replete with ominous synth groans, martial drumming and jet-black lyrical content, the work depicts revolution in a futuristic, totalitarian society.

"It's basically an album about the state of England," Ka-Spel explains. "It's like, 'Take this further, and where do you end up?' You end up reopening your oldest political prison in the world, the Tower of London, as sort of a concentration camp. People took it like I was advocating fascism. I've never flirted with fascism -- of course not! It's everything I stand against. I wanted to put people into these places, to almost feel the pain in the walls rather than standing there and shouting, 'This is wrong!' Everyone knows it's wrong, but you don't need someone shouting at you in this respect. That will drive people away."

Britain's music press recoiled from the album, a reaction that left Ka-Spel feeling more than a tad marginalized in his merry olde back yard.

"It helped me in my decision to move to the Nederlands, actually, right at the end of 1984," he recalls. "I was so sad. It was almost passed over in England."

After squatting in Amsterdam for a year, Ka-Spel and company moved to rural Nijmegen, where their base of operation remains in effect to this day. The band flourished in its self-imposed exile, enlisting some three dozen rotating members over two and a half decades while creating a body of work that includes such career highlights as 1987's Any Day Now, 1990's The Crushed Velvet Apocalypse and 1991's breakout album, The Maria Dimension. But it's 2001's three-disc, thirteen-volume boxed set, Chemical Playschool, that Ka-Spel regards as the Dots' crowning achievement.

"I'm proud of that one," he says. "It's like this massive three-and-a-half-hour psychedelic voyage. It's meant to be like drugs without the drugs, and somehow I think it's successful. I worked on it every day for like a year, and honestly, I haven't been able to listen to it since it came out. It took too much out of me."

Ka-Spel can credit some of that exhaustion to the release of fifteen solo albums and a half-dozen side projects, including Tear Garden, with Skinny Puppy's cEvin Key, an improvisational outfit called Mimer, and collaborations with Steven Stapleton (Nurse With Wound) and David Tibet (Psychic TV). And even though the Dots' word-of-mouth popularity dwells below the commercial radar, their touring schedule remains relentless. Along with co-founder Knight, the current drummerless lineup includes reed phenom Niels Van Hornblower, Dutch guitarist Erik Drost and soundboard/production wizard Raymond Steeg. With a solid reputation for turning live shows into shamanic theater complete with candles and incantations, the Dots appeal to a fairly broad spectrum -- especially industrial-minded goths who go fetal over the mention of a dying swan. Throw in Ka-Spel's occasional crystal-ball gazing, and you've got a formula for phantasmic intrigue.

"I can't deny it, because it seems to be true so often," Ka-Spel says of his soothsaying tendencies. "But there again, I don't think it's down to any mystical property. I don't like to say that I'm more tuned in than anybody, but things that do find their way into the lyrics are a little strange. But I won't be pretentious enough to say that I'm any kind of prophet. That was always meant to be humor."

Even so, a tune called "The Unlikely Event," from 2001's All the King's Horses, evokes shades of Nostradamus: "I hope that you can hear me/Because they're screaming in the aisle/The stewardess said, 'Turn that phone off!'/So I smiled, blew a smoke ring... Just called to say goodbye/I won't be home for dinner/Goodbye/Lay a wreath upon that grassy knoll for me."

"This was written before the whole September 11th thing by about six months," Ka-Spel asserts. "But is it so surprising? There's nothing odd about that, because that's the world we live in. I just observe the world and think this is a scenario that's very likely to occur -- and ultimately, very sadly, it did occur. It just really underlines how tragic this planet is right now."

Ka-Spel's gloomy outlook brightens somewhat on the Dots' new release, The Whispering Wall. Through typically clever wordplay and densely layered arrangements, the disc explores the link between bondage and television ("Soft Toy"), dabbles in noir thriller ("King of a Small World") and pokes fun at the disappointing world of adult entertainment ("06").

"That's the prefix for basically every phone-sex number and dating service in Holland," Ka-Spel says. "It's just a little flight of fancy, you know. Sort of like you never get what you want. Just a little bit of fun, really. It's not from actual experience. I've never phoned an 06 number in my life."

During less randy moments, Wall finds its hapless narrator trapped in his own flat, unable to punch in the exit code when the power goes down ("The Divide"). On the morbid lullaby "Peek-A-Boo," Ka-Spel offers up yet another disturbing, childish sing-along: "Plucking on your nerves/With catgut pliers/Picking on the hamstring/One two three/Push-pull the pan into the fire/Make a little guess/Yes, yes, that's me."

Served up hot, pink and crispy with a generous side of gallows humor, the Dots' umpteenth full-length provides one more piece of an ever-expanding jigsaw puzzle and further supports Ka-Spel's simple credo: Sing while you may.

"It's meant to be an optimistic statement in these desperate times," Ka-Spel insists. "The speed of life is almost excruciating. It's like a boulder that's rolling down a mountain, gathering momentum all the time. Right now I'm sort of taking that to its natural conclusion -- to saturation overload.

"I don't think the end of the world is around the corner," he adds. "What would be the point then? And ultimately, I do believe there's a point. I mean, you have to. You have to believe in your own species. I also have children, so I have to believe in the future for them. So 'Sing while you may' is like 'Be glad you live in this time right here.' It's damned exciting. We're living through the most significant time in the history of the planet. Sing while you may. You don't know how long you've got."

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