I don’t want to feel restricted by any topics, I also wrote about love, politics, deceit , sex, death, madness, bible stories, nonsense, fun and cakes…
22/06/2011, Didier BECU
Cherry Red Records recently released "Raging and Dancing" by one of the best bands I can think of. Their name: Minimal Compact. This Israelian band filled the gap between world music and new wave and the result became one of the most original sounds ever. We spoke to founder Samy Birnbach (currently in Morpheus Secrets) and asked what is and what hopefully will be.
Samy, along with Berry and Malka you founded Minimal Compact. Did that happen when you moved to Amsterdam or in Israel, and why did you go to Holland?
We left Tel Aviv as a bunch of friends (Berry was the only pro. musician back then, he threw Malka a few riffs on the bass, I was singing at home for my own pleasure, Rami Fortis was Malka`s boyfriend and a self taught guitar player, but he went back to Israel before Minimal Compact was formed). We were starved to hear and see concerts by artists we knew and loved, from listening to their records that I used to get sent or buy from abroad. Israel was very conservative music wise back then and the only concerts taking place there, were by people like Elton John or Eric Clapton once a year, we felt very alienated and bored music wise. I was coming from the writings side of things and I did ( as a lyricist), the first Israeli punk rock album called "plonter"( on cbs Israel) with Fortis ( music and singing) back in 78.
Fortis was a wild performer and highly misunderstood in Israel so it was difficult for him to play out very often as the halls and clubs were too afraid to book him because of his reputation , that led to frustration. We had friends in Amsterdam who wrote to us and said come over you will love it, as every week there are interesting gigs and concerts that are taking place in the milky way or paradise clubs …so we moved to Amsterdam in may 1980( the same week as Ian Curtis killed himself). Berry, Malka and I shared a flat over there and we were fooling around one day , with an echoplex and a Sony double deck cassette recorder, we came up with the first demos of Minimal Compact" creation is perfect ( I am a camera" a poem by Bob Kaufman, a brilliant s.f/u,s poet of the beat generation that I love) and "to get inside".
We didn’t think to form a group at that stage, but reaction from people and local friends, like Dick Polak ( the writer and singer of Mecano a legendary 80 group in Holland and France in the 80) who also had an indie label back then called TORSO offered us a one off deal to do a 7", at the same time Marc Hollander who was an old friend of mine and who lived in Brussels and just started his own indie label Crammed, wrote me and invited me to visit him in bxl (I had no idea till then that he has started a label…) which I did and took with me the rough demos that we did. He and Veronique, his wife, loved what they heard and he asked us to record a 7" for Crammed, when we are ready, we started rehearsing for the recordings with a guest drummer that Dick Polak was recommending to us and "statik dancin" was born.
So we had 3 songs and in the studio Dick was joining Marc Hollander producing and playing with us and Corry Bolton from Mecano who played an extra keyboards and guitar, and two guest drummers: Peteja from the Mick Ness group on TORSO (he had a peculiar looking drum set that he built himself. half conventional and half metallic ( years later James Murphy from LCD sound system and a big fan of "statik dancing" asked me about the peculiar metalic funky drum sound on it that always puzzled him, and I told him about the strange drums that peteja has built…) and Stefan who was playing with a Belgium group called des airs (one ep on crammed back in the 80) and now is one of the gypsy Romanian group Taraff.
The atmosphere in the studio( 8 tracks) was so exciting that we did 2 other songs then and there, so it became a mini lp instead of a 7".
Berry, Malka and I still thought of it as a one off project and it was only when it came out in 81, when we got such enthusiastic reviews in the music press in France, Holland and the UK that we decided to take it a step further and look for a drummer, Max Franken who was suggested to us by Dick`s girlfriend.
He was also self thought and still learning his trade( like us really) so it was meant to be a temporary arrangement yet that turned out to last 7 years…. And 7 albums.
As far as I knew you were the first band who combined world music with new wave?
Its true, as we came from the Middle East, we were used to hearing Oriental sounds (among many other sounds) on the radio, plus Berry was born in Turkey and Fortis had Iraqi roots from his mother side, so it was a natural thing for us to integrate some oriental sounds in our music, it was never planned in advance. To my knowledge there was only one uk group at that time by the name of C Cat Trance that had some Oriental influences in a few of their songs, as far as I can remember.
Seems like ages ago, but still something like that seems impossible now...
Yes indeed, then it was the post punk period and the do it yourself ethic, lots of indie labels, people who were saying no need to go to the music school, we can do it too even if they couldn’t at first...
We learned as we went along and got better as we went on, it was the freshness and enthusiasm that ruled. Nowadays its: you deliver on the first or (if you are lucky!) second release or you are gone, no time to develop … or go anywhere… except oblivion.
Then you got the attention of Crammed Discs, so I guess Belgium plays an important role in your life?
Well , I’ve explained my meeting and friendship with Marc Hollander above. We moved from Amsterdam to Brussels in 84 (after the first full album "one by one") when we did the deadly weapons (written mostly in Amsterdam and recorded in Brussels).
It was a pretty dark album that spawned " next one is real" (one of our classics) and we decided there and then that we wanted to move and live in Brussels. That was a lighter and happier period in our life, as members of the group were getting romantically involved with their future wives and husbands and somehow the Brussels atmosphere was less oppressive then Amsterdam at that time, that led the "Raging souls" album the most romantic album that we did, in fact when I look back. I can clearly see/hear that each album of ours was representing a piece of our time.
I am a big fan of Crammed Discs. I was always wondering if it was a happy family?
Well yes and no, there was that of course but also the opposite took place, it was not lovey dovey all the time, its only human, there were times of heavy internal conflicts and fighting, among ourselves, the label etc. It all led to the final split in 88.
In that time you also did a session for John Peel. Was the UK open for a sound like yours?
We did a Peel session that we weren’t so happy with as Berry was stuck in a prison in Israel at the time and we just got back after 20 hours flight from Japan (we were on a tour there with the honeymoon killers for 14 days back in 84), jet legged and not in a very good form, so we shelved this peel session after it got played on the BBC, it was no good to be honest, John Peel was a great open minded guy and was supporting a lot of different musicians that would have never had a chance to be heard without him. I miss him terribly as I still hear the BBC World Service on a daily basis, no one did or could replace him… without him I don’t think that I would have turned into DJ Morpheus, I love my radio shows the best until now. He was an inspiration for sure.
Funny enough when we lived in Amsterdam in 81, the static dancing mini lp was out, no Dutch music magazine wrote a word about it, but the late English music journalist Richard Cook (the first wire mag editor later on and an authority on jazz music in general who wrote a book on the subject) wrote a very positive review of it. In the NME, a week later oor magazine( the main Dutch music mag.) took a notice of that and sent a writer and a photographer for our first article and review in the mag.
The UK in general was rather closed and dismissive to outside artists and groups apart from the USA and English speaking countries, we had more reviews and write up in the UK press thru the years but we only managed to play in the ICA in London once in 84, and that’s it.
I know many will disagree but I always thought "The first one cuts" was your best album ever and yet it was your last one.
Yes, everybody that I know has a different favourite album of Minimal Compact, but it’s a good feeling to hear (and I still get messages concerning Minimal Compact almost weekly on Facebook and My Space) from people whose lives were so deeply affected by the songs/albums since they came out or from youngsters who just discovered it and just love it.
We had the live album really as the last one, but the figure was the last studio album, our live concerts at the time were getting stronger and stronger, more and more people were coming to our concerts.
Wim Wenders who was a fan of Minimal Compact, took " when I go" for his "the sky over Berlin" film , yet things between us were on the knife’s edge, heavy tension that was previously a source for creativity through the years turned into a non–creative , paralyzing period, when we couldn’t even go to the rehearsing room to write new material anymore, then I knew that it spelt the end of the story for me.
People who didn’t know the internal strife story of m.c thought that we were mad splitting up when we did, but the relationships between us were at the dead end. We did 7 albums and existed for 7 years so it was pretty good for the time that it lasted.
How did you feel when the Minimal Compact days were over?
It felt like a divorce, it was shocking! But it was unavoidable under the circumstances. The only thing to do was to get working on something else again, I’ve worked on my homage to poetry" when god was famous" (made to measure vol. 10) album with Benjamin Lew, 2 weeks after the split, Berry and Fortis worked on their Foreign Affair album around the same time.
I just wanna know, someone told me you are superstars in Israel. Is that true?
Well, Minimal Compact is adored in Israel as cultural heroes, we were the only group from there who did our own thing without a compromise and had achieved a certain degree of recognition and respect around the globe.
Berry and Fortis have done dozen of solo albums and some joint projects in Israel since the 90`s , Berry is one of the biggest stars on the Israeli scene, their albums/concerts are very local and sung in Hebrew and not as universal as Minimal Compact stuff used to be, but its not a let down by any means. They live there and choose to do it this way.
Malka and Max are busy recording Githead( 3 albums to date so far) with Colin Newman( Malka`s husband and Wire’s front man) and touring sometime, we had our reunions first on 91 as the Israelis were demanding that we should play our Farewell concerts (3 years after we split in Europe) over there and we did. Then in 2003/4 crammed has released the Minimal Compact box set "returning wheel" (3 cds, best of, archives, remixes+ a booklet with the Minimal Compact, story and discography and all the lyrics and pictures).
Plus a documentary film (86 m.) about the group named also" raging souls" came out, so we met and the atmosphere and time were right and we decided to do 5 concerts in Israel, that turned out to be mighty successful, then we played Europe, mostly in France, Brussels, Hasselt and Amsterdam.
The very last concert was at the end of august 2005 at a park in Paris with LCD Soundsystem, were it was raining cats and dogs but people were singing and dancing in the rain all through the concert until the end. That was special for sure! Two years ago, as I have turned 60, I asked the group to do two concerts in Tel Aviv for the occasion as it sold out in 24 hours without even any posters (just word of mouth) we did two more as the demand was so huge. Normally there should be a few concerts happening for the occasion of Max’s (our drummer) 60th birthday next year September 20011, lets see.
Now Samy, you're part of Morpheus Secrets. What does that band mean for you?
I am very happy to work with the David, Serge, Gabriel and Stephan the members of Morpheus Secrets such good guys, music lovers and good players without an "attitude".
I had a very nasty experience last year in 2009 as I worked and released an album "priceless concrete echoes" with the Penelopes (on Citizen Rec. France) once we released the album , things turned pretty ugly. It’s a long story and I will spare you the details. I did 3 concerts with them but due to what was going on I have decided to leave this project, so I found myself disappointed and sad at the fact that I have wasted my time as I wanted to play live and now I will have to wait till I finish a new project and it might take up to two years to do all this and go live.
I told my story to Stephane (one of Morpheus Secrets guitarists) that I knew for sometime from a record shop in Brussels.
You're doing quite a lot of Minimal Compact songs. Is that to get public attention and then more easily start writing new songs, with the goal to forget Minimal Compact?
A friend of mine who also knew of my dilemma about 'shall I work a further two years on a new album and live or forget about the whole thing', put me in my place by saying:" look did you not enjoy doing the old Minimal Compact songs at the reunion in 2003/2005?
Did you find that the songs aged badly or that they are not relevant anymore? I said to him of course they are still relevant to me, I still feel those songs they are timeless and I am proud of those songs, the arrangements of the songs are slightly different with Morpheus Secrets haven’t you noticed?
The group is more rock oriented and less world music. And even more dynamic then Minimal Compact used to be. Beside those songs, I also do 3 songs (saved, stuck in lala land, and long black fly) of the Penelopes album, the Spankers ( crackin up first time live) song that I did in 2007 for the art of disco/yellow 12" France, and "the absence"( the ballad that I also do live for the first time) that I did for Karl off album on Anorak Supersport ( Belgium).
I guess that if things will continue to grow up in the future and be as exciting with Morpheus Secrets as it is now there should be new material done and a new album to be released in time.
I kind of feel sorry to ask this, but will Minimal Compact ever reform?
Apart from those 60 birthdays occasions in the future hopefully, there are no plans to record or reform. Nothing lasts forever!
In all honesty, when I saw you perforling for the very first time, I just had one thing in mind: how will they let us forget the impact of Malka? In the end you did however, poor Malka...
I invited Malka at the time to sing with me on "saved" on the penelopes album and she did so beautifully, she has her own project githead and is busy with her excellent pictures and art, we might collaborate on stuff again (we did an album together with Colin called "tree" on their own label swim back in 93) everything is possible still...
How do you explain that boost to go suddenly back on stage?
It’s not suddenly at all, I got "the bug" again since the Minimal Compact reunion in 2003/5 to do more live concerts, write songs and sing them after years of only DJing and you sometimes are forced to wait for the right people and place and time.
Are you still interested in writing about politics, or is it about love now?
Its about everything& nothing, I don’t want to feel restricted by any topics, I also wrote about love, politics, deceit , sex, death, madness, bible stories, nonsense, fun, and cakes….(not really, not yet in any case).
What's your favourite record of all time and why.
A very difficult question for me as even 10 fave albums is hard for me. There are so many, well if I am forced to, then its: love-forever changes. It’s a perfect album by very brilliant artist Arthur lee (and two fantastic songs by Brian McLean) both r.i.p That never left my turntable since it came out in the 60`s, and Robert Wyatt "rock bottom" its got the best love song ever for me on it "sea song" and Robert Wyatt is my favourite soul singer ever.
A SPLIT-SECOND • As long as the public wants to see us, I consider it an honor to do live shows for them.
ULTERIOR • We wont stop until we are the biggest band on the planet or we are dead
LES FLEURS DU MAL • We have got more than we expected, and to our astonishment we have got better reviews than we ever hoped for.
CHRIS & COSEY • Music can be regarded as art. | Art can be regarded as music.
SUICIDE COMMANDO • It’s such a small world that success is quite relative and I’ve always been very aware of that.
HANIN ELIAS • I think life is like school for the soul and I needed to discover something else for myself.
THE EXPLODING BOY • The Cure or not The Cure, that’s the question!
LIZARD SMILE • After our daily 9 to 5 routine, getting together to write and play music is something we look forward to.
DISKONNEKTED • As an artist you have to be ambitious, you have to like what you do and you need to have inspiration.
NTRSN • It’s quite funny we can be ourselves and bring our music!