Prinzhorn Dance School are a band who feel like a science experiment, set to determine once and for all the bare minimum number of things needed to make badass rock music. Post-punk sounds have come and gone and come again over the past decade, and the British band—an odd, long-standing pillar of the DFA Records roster—have been more interested than anyone in ripping the cold, dark genre apart to see how it works. Their self-titled 2007 debut is as bare-bones as music can get. It's massively underrated follow-up, Clay Class, was one of the best records of 2012 for pulling off the neat trick of fleshing out their sound by adding only a few restrained strokes. The band is one of many on the massive, sold out DFA 12th Anniversary Party at Grand Prospect Hall this Saturday, but before that, they make their actual U.S. live debut at the significantly smaller Williamsburg DIY venue Shea Stadium on Friday as part of a DFA and Golden Ratio Presents show that'll also features a set from label mates YACHT. (You can still get tickets for that here. You are sort of lame if you don't.)
Ahead of those first American shows, we chatted with Suzi Horn and Tobin Prinz about their music via email, getting real fanboy philosophical about their stark music, their surreal lyrics, and how minimal a pop song can even be. (There is a slight difference of opinion about disco, also.)
The L Magazine: Is its bassline the most important component of a Prinzhorn Dance School song? Which part tends to be the starting point when writing?
Suzi Horn: Each element is of equal importance or it wouldn’t be there. A song can start with a bassline, a guitar note, a beat or a lyric. Anything that makes each other’s eyes sparkle.
Tobin Prinz: We try to avoid a set rule or formula or any predetermined stylistic. some things are pretty deep rooted in our approach—like the way we try and present the songs in their simplest form, as Suzi
says, so each element is functional and necessary. but each song, each record, is exactly that—a record of how two people think and feel at a given time.
“Minimal” is the word most often applied to your music by observers, and it is hard for me to imagine a rock record more stripped down than the first album, especially. Was the challenge in moving forward from there figuring out what elements you could both get behind adding to your music? Or more about figuring out how to do something equally sparse, but in a way that felt new and distinct?
SH: The transition between albums was easy. we knew we wanted to add some colour but still be true to who we are. I hate cymbals, so dismissing stuff is a good place to start!
TP: You’re right, that was definitely an important part of the first record. and we knew we didn’t want to make the same album twice. I think the evolution of the second record was prompted by a shift in the lyrical approach. we wanted to confront more personal themes—loss, transience accepting that nothing lasts forever. i wanted to be as honest as i could lyrically. I didn't want to hide behind metaphors. urban and rural landscapes, flora and fauna, the seasons, huge people—less car parks and lakes—that imagery is about taking comfort in special places, but also looking at the way those spaces can amplify emotions, positive and negative.
What, in your opinion, are the bare essential things that a song needs to have to even be a song?
SH: Good question. I think a song can be made up of any single thing that a listener can get with. I've heard pieces with just a single drum that made me excited, as well as a full orchestra.
TP: I guess that’s one of the reasons we do this, to work that out.
I never want to know what “Crackerjack Docker” is actually about, because I’m still sort of delighted by not knowing what it’s about. How do feel about your audience trying, or not trying, to make sense of surreal lyrical riddles?
SH: Tobin is the wordsmith. I chip in with bits and help with editing them. I do love that people all have their own meanings to songs. Even Tobin and i have different ideas about what the lyrics mean. I think it’s important that people can interpret them and create their own story from them and that the songs aren’t too literal.
TP: The words are reduced in the same way as the music. Each set of lyrics comes from a big chunk of prose. And they get whittled down to their essential form. In this case a story about a gang of Portsmouth dock workers on a weekend trip to London. Hope that didn’t spoil it for you.
Was a song like “I Want You” from Clay Class a conscious attempt to make something more open and emotional? Or just to express a pretty dark sentiment in a way that sounds almost like a love ballad? (Do you think it is a love ballad?)
SH: It is definitely a love song. it’s a bit dark but isn’t love? We definitely wrote it as a sweeter part of the album. the bass and guitar play with each like a partnership in a bitter-sweet kind of way.
TP: It wasn’t conscious or planned. But yes, probably all of the above is true.
Other than “minimal”, “divisive” is maybe the word that pops up most in relation to your records, and I’ve read interviews where you’ve fully embraced that. Do you think making art specific to oneself necessarily cuts it off from a big swath of humanity?
SH: We make pop music. It just seems people have different ideas about what pop music is.
TP: I never think that way. that’s too much like being the marketing man. I don’t make music to be popular or get rich. that’s lucky because i’m neither. I enjoy words. and the juxtaposition of sound. I never write with an audience in mind. if someone listens to one of our songs and it changes their day in some small way, then that’s amazing. If they don’t, that’s fine too.
Have you started work on a third album yet? If not, do you have any forming ideas of where you might go from Clay Class?
SH: There are some ideas going back and fourth but after all the touring we’ve done around the second album I needed a break. To remember who I was and what it was like to live at home, see my friends and have a life outside a tour bus! I do know whatever we do will be true to how we are feeling on those given days—and who knows how we may feel once we get in the studio again.
TP: I’m looking forward to making a third 'horn record. But Suzi and I have worked out that there is no point writing together until we are ready. We just waste time, we just go round in circles and drink too much in a dark room—the studio does not have windows. We spent nearly 300 days on the last record, so we are still just enjoying the novelty of daylight!
How have you enjoyed being “the rock band” on a dance label?
SH: I love being the distant cousins from across the sea! It was tough at the start but once we found our own audience and people started to dig it, it didn’t seem to matter that we were the odd bastard children of DFA.
TP: Music is music. You should see the dancers at our shows.
Do you like disco?
SH: Who doesn't like disco?
TP: No. It reminds me of when i got stuck in an elevator.
Has the long wait to come play shows in the U.S. given you time to build up any ideas about how gigs in the U.S. might differ from European ones?
SH: We were gutted when our visas didn’t come through for the initial tour with LCD and thought we'd probably never get the chance to come state side. So this is a great opportunity for us and I am really excited. There are differences in audiences around Europe but people come to gigs to have a good time and listen to the music so i hope NYC is just the same. And i hope there are still people around after the show to have a few drinks! it’s great we are playing an all ages show as the 21 thing is still a bit strange for me as my sister Nancy was taking me to gigs at 12 and I loved it.
TP: We get a lot of amazing correspondence from America. So i’m really happy we are coming over because touring, playing live, is a massive part of what we do. The live shows all over Europe have been incredible. Insane. And we really wanted American audiences to experience that too. Now they can!