Hot off the Press

Karl Demata

by Alissa Ordabai
Staff Writer —

Best known for being a member of the British prog-rock outfit Crippled Black Phoenix, Karl Demata has also recently been receiving acclaim as a solo artist following the release of his début album Cross the Mountain. The classic-rock-inspired record released in 2011 got the attention of the UK guitar magazines and webzines with its ruggedly elegant, tasteful mixture of blues, country and rock – a melting pot of genres Demata delivers with earnestness of a seasoned pro. Unsentimental and going below the surface, this record shines a different light on his musical personality which so far has been mostly known for the edgy dysphoria his guitar parts were adding to the brooding, complex sound of his main band.

Curious about the inspiration behind Demata’s solo record, Hardrock Haven caught up with him in London just before Christmas to talk about his solo release, the influences and the personal journey behind it, as well as more general subjects, such as the nature of musicianship in general and the visceral versus the cerebral in popular music.

Hardrock Haven: Your debut album is such an unusual record for 2011. Especially for Britain where this style of music is not getting too much exposure these days.

Karl Demata: The fact is that it’s a blues record, but it’s not blues. I have always thought that releasing another CD with 10-12 songs that sound like covers of 12-bar blues sounding like either Muddy Waters or Stevie Ray Vaughan just doesn’t make sense anymore. I don’t think it ever made sense. For one, I was not born in Chicago or in Mississippi, so I cannot pretend to be a blues-man. But then I cannot pretend my playing and taste were not influenced by that. That’s what shapes my songwriting more than anything else. I don’t know how to define it. It’s blues-rock and classic rock with a strong accent on blues guitar playing. And that’s probably my cop-out. (Laughs).

HRH: Over how long have you been working on this record? Have you been storing ideas over a number of years?

KD: There are a couple of songs that were written some time ago, but we are not talking huge amount of time. Probably one year or two years before I went into the studio. But most of it – I would say 80 per cent – was conceived, put together and arranged in 2 or 3 months before we went into the studio. I just knew that I had enough material in store. When the studio is booked you are faced with a deadline and you start thinking of how you are going to develop the songs and give them the final touches. If I don’t have the deadline and the pending doom, then I just let things go and never finish things. At least that is how it is with me. As for material, I always I tend to write a lot after tours, like now, for example. Usually you get a bit depressed after a tour and writing music also has a therapeutic effect. But after some time you have to go through the painful process of throwing some things away, and polishing things that you think are good enough to stand the test of time and good enough to be arranged and worked on with other musicians.

HRH: Are you happy with the way this record has turned out?

KD: I am very happy with the way this record has turned out. Although I would have liked to have a bigger budget for recording. Especially stylistically I’m very happy with that, because it’s something I’ve always felt but never articulated. I always wanted to do something like that, but without it being another blues album. I just don’t feel the need to buy one, let alone make one. Of course, you know, I’m always up to listening to blues guitar players.

HRH: Who were your influences when you were growing up?

KD: We had a guitar around the house when I was very young, and playing the guitar was like play-time. But I remember one night staying at home and on late-night TV they were re-running the Woodstock movie. I think I was 11. And there were 2 or 3 elements that were really impressive for an 11 year-old mind. Part of it was the image of Hendrix and Santana, and Johnny Winter, and Leslie West, and Alvin Lee. The whole “iconic” element of it. And then, of course, there was the sound and the vibe, and the feeling that those things transcend daily life, daily troubles and worries, and that this is something that you can get into to find a shelter from all that, especially when you are a teenager and going through some troubled times, like everyone at that age, I suppose. You have something to rely on, and it’s like having a safety net.

So that was kind of the beginning and for a while I stood within those grounds – late 60s – early 70s blues-rock, and then dug deeper into what I liked and not liked. Taking into consideration that I wasn’t even a teenager yet at the time. But I remember really dedicating hours and hours to playing the guitar trying to sound like whoever it was I liked that particular week – be it Hendrix, or Johnny Winter, or Alvin Lee. And then, of course, you find out that there is more to it – people who are maybe not as famous, but more influential – people like Peter Green, Mike Bloomfield, Rory Gallagher. In a way those became my heroes. When you are a teenager and everybody talks about Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix, you have your own thing like Peter Green, who nobody knows anything about.

HRH: What is it about Peter Green that struck you?

KD: There are a lot of things in music that don’t strike you at the first glance, and you can’t put your finger on it and explain why you are drawn to somebody, but that’s because there are a lot of things in music which are – for the lack of a better world – subliminal. Things that are not in your face, but between the lines. And when you listen to people like Peter Green, or, for example, Rory Gallagher – another good example – you hear that there is an ethic behind it all that transcends technique, sound and all that.

HRH: More sincerity?

KD: Exactly. You can tell it’s a guy with his own demons and his own issues and somebody you can relate to. It seems more accessible on the personal level. Not to talk bad about other guitar players, but it strikes you as something more honest. You just feel that they are more human rather than trying to be rock stars.

HRH: Because those are two people who’ve never had huge international success.

KD: Yes, but that goes to show that what is popular is not necessarily the best. Success does not really come into question when I think about what to buy or what to listen to. It never has, even when I was a teenager. I never thought that I should listen to AC / DC because all of my friends were. Of course, I enjoy listening to AC / DC, but I was just drawn to something that seemed to be safer in a way that there was more humanity there. Less of a rock stars and more of a persons.

HRH: Someone who doesn’t intimidate his audience?

KD: Yes, that’s part of it. Peter Green, for example, when you read his interviews you see that he is a very tormented soul and extremely talented, but at the same time not interested in being in the spotlight. And that strikes me as something very honest. While other people strive to be in the spotlight and then maybe one day they realise that it’s not really curing their demons. There are a lot of people in music who are filling a void in their personality. And they think that by becoming famous and being in the spotlight that thirst will be satisfied. And a lot of times it is not. And then you get into issues like drugs, suicide and destructive behaviour. While there are other people who realise from the very beginning that music is not about me being centre stage and having fans and groupies and all that. Which is nice, but is a by-product, and not the goal. That strikes you as being more pure. That’s the thing I really struggled with – should I perceive myself as a guitar player or should I perceive myself as a musician?

HRH: So who are you – a guitar player or a musician?

KD: I think the answer is in the CD. It’s very easy to fall in the temptation of being commercial. And then you find out that you are not playing the music anymore, you are playing the guitar. To put it in a simple way, you are doing your exercises and maintaining your technique. I always felt that there is a very dangerous side in that attitude. There are a lot of great guitar players who from a player’s point of view are fantastic and extremely proficient, and then their music just leaves you cold, there is nothing to it. It’s not something you want to listen to when you are in a specific mood. If you play guitar and want to be inspired for your studies, getting involved in a specific technique – then yes. But the truth is that this is something separate. For a long time on instinctual level I even thought that those two things were detrimental to each other. That the more proficient technically you are, the less of a musician you are. You are in a way shutting down a part of your brain.

HRH: But isn’t exceptional technique something that allows you express your inner realities to the full?

KD: In theory.

HRH: Whereas rudimentary technique limits your ability to express yourself to the full extent?

KD: In theory it is true. But how rarely it happens in real life. I can’t really think of many.

HRH: Jeff Beck.

KD: I don’t know. People who come in mind are Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

HRH: Oh, so we are talking about non-guitarists now.

KD: Yes, musicians in general.

HRH: But those two musicians had extreme self-discipline not to get carried away by their instrument.

KD: Yes, and it’s the hardest thing to do.

HRH: It takes maturity.

KD: Yes, it takes maturity, exactly. It takes artistic integrity. You should always keep in mind that technique is good and it’s great to have it, but you should also safeguard part of your time and space for something that’s much more instinctual. Something that doesn’t involve much thinking or going, “Oh, what key am I in?” or “What kind of chords are we playing?”, chord changes, structures, and all that. You have to be able to close your eyes and you shut your brain and react in a more instinctual way.

HRH: But this is also a matter of temperament. Introvert – extravert, etc.

KD: I’m sure it depends on that as well. I am sure there is a big element of disposition, maybe?

HRH: Some players just have to be THAT flamboyant and THAT flashy because that’s who they are, that’s how they feel inside: “I want to go all out and just rip.” And for them it’s expressing their true inner self.

KD: Is it?

HRH: For some people – yes. Some people genuinely want to be really fast, and really let it rip, and that’s their innate character that they feel needs to be expressed.

KD: I don’t look down on it and I don’t disrespect it. Anybody who’s reached that level needs to be praised for it. There are no questions about it. But personally I always had a feeling… And I can tell through my experience as a musician that there are periods when I was giving so much credit to technical aspects while forgetting the larger picture. I was not really playing the music anymore, I was playing the guitar. Which is the difference I was referring to.

HRH: Which is like the Olympics. Like a sport.

KD: Exactly. And again, this is craftsmanship. And to a certain extent I think that certain people should be de-mystified a little bit. If you have the physical ability, and the time, and patience, and the motivation, you CAN become a very proficient instrumentalist. Becoming a musician in a larger sense of the word is an art. I don’t like to use the word, but for the lack of a better one… There is no short-cut, this is not something you can achieve through studying 10 hours a day. It’s a little bit more complex, a little bit like soul-searching.

HRH: And it involves more pain too.

KD: I think it involves living a life – which unfortunately means pain as well, amongst other things. I think it was Chet Atkins who said, when asked how one can become a better guitar player, “You have to be somebody to have something to say.” And that “something to say” comes not only through guitar players you study and admire, but from the books you read, the relationships you have, the life you live, the places you visit, and all that. You see, there is no “how-to” book for that. It’s more complex, you are more by yourself, in the dark. And you have to find your way out of there. Again, if you don’t live, all the time you spend in the bedroom playing scales won’t give you much to say. As I said, it’s all nice and dandy and it’s great to see when you are a guitar player.

HRH: It’s good entertainment.

KD: It’s good entertainment, exactly. But I think you should always aim at something more. If people take your music just as entertainment it’s fine, there is nothing wrong with that. There is something noble about being just a craftsman. But I think it’s also human trying to transcend things, not strive for more.

HRH: That’s interesting. We’ve just talked about how people release music to prove something to their audiences, or to prove something to themselves, or to entertain, but what was the purpose of this release?

KD: The purpose was to in a way tell a music story elaborating on some key points in my taste and in my life. So there are a lot of songs which may be quite flashy from a guitar point of view, but – as I said before – it’s almost like a by-product. There are things I have been listening to for a long time and they are now part of my instinct as a musician. And I decided to combine those things in a way that I would like, making a record I would myself like to listen to.

You have to ask yourself the question: If I had to buy a record that stands in the middle of a lot of things that I’ve liked through the years, how would that record sound? And that’s basically it. To a certain extent, I even had to limit myself because I listen to lots of kind of music – acoustic music, jazz. And while recording it, I had other songs that were hinting in other directions. But then it is nice to give an impression of being a versatile musician and at the same time the impression of playing what you know and what you feel, what you feel at home with. But it will be good to avoid being seen as schizophrenic. (Laughs). I could do fifteen kinds of music in fifteens songs but I’d rather work on another project or another band and explore other things I like. This time I decided to limit the scope to what is a safe ground and natural for me personally, which is blues-rock, and give it hopefully a more contemporary sound. But you can tell that there are hints to other directions and there are hints to something that is more intimate-sounding, maybe even psychedelic or introspective.

But another element is the fact that I wanted to release an album of songs as opposed to an album of guitar extrapolations. I just tried to give a slightly different perspective on each song. Almost like looking at the same thing at a slightly different angle. Some of those songs are very easy, straightforward rocking tunes because I like that too, I like 3-chord stuff. But there are things that are a little bit more complex, hinting at something else. And most importantly I felt that this is something that I had to put down and then look back at it and judge it with some distance in time. I really like the way some parts came out, and I would like to expand and experiment further in some aspects of it.

HRH: You know how records, when you put them out, say something about yourself and your life, but then they take a different life of their own?

KD: Yes. That is totally true.

HRH: And they become interpreted by listeners in all sorts of ways and they become something else in the minds of other people.

KD: But at that point the record is not you anymore, it’s something that has a life of its own.

HRH: But this record is a part of a tradition, and for our American readers, who have never met you, this record will be the indication of how blues and blues-rock are being played in Europe in 2011.

KD: (Laughs). I really don’t know. I really don’t know what people will make of it, and to a certain extent I don’t care.

HRH: So you are not speaking on behalf of the European blues community?

KD: Definitely not. (Laughs). I don’t think this record belongs into any specific category. If I say “rock-blues”, I say so because I don’t know any other record that sounds like that and it is an all-encompassing definition. But the songs and the albums do take a life of their own, and the duty of a musician, as opposed to a duty of a guitar player, is exactly to recognise the value of that. If you are going into a recording studio or form a band, and you think, “Oh, this band should sound like a bit of this, and a bit of that, and a dash of that,” then you are shooting yourself in the foot before you’ve started. You have to see how you interact with the material personally, how you interact with other people in the band, and letting things go by their own accord. There are always two ways of approaching music, one is rational and the other one is more instinctual. And we need more of that. You just need more people saying: “Look, that’s what came out, if you like it – you like it, if you don’t like it – you don’t like it.” There are way too many products that follow trends. This is very contemptuous. I like to think that people will at some point get more and more tune with that and would be able discern between what is “manufactured” from what really the result of a true creative process. This might be a utopian view but I think that at some level people can tell if you deal with a pre-conceived manufactured product, artist or band. So that’s basically it.
So as I said before, I had to limit myself to a certain extent in the scope of sound I wanted to cover. And, of course, that has left me with a lot of things I would like to expand in the future.

HRH: Do you have another solo record in mind?

KD: Well, I have a lot of things in mind. (Laughs). Yes, ideally I would like to do another record within the same format.

HRH: In the same genre?

KD: I would like to develop that, to go deeper into the aspects of the first CD that I really like and to try to tackle some specific areas.

HRH: What would those be?

KD: There are 3 or 4 songs there that to me kind of like stand out. One is, of course, “Cross the Mountain”.

HRH: It has amazing slide work and great hints towards psychedelia.

KD: Yes, exactly. And yet it is very down-to-earth and doesn’t sound something that is a “guitar-player” kind of song.

HRH: But yet it is very guitar-oriented. Was the slidework on this track a technical challenge for you?

KD: I wouldn’t say it was a challenge. “Challenge” has negative connotations. It was more of a developing process. Going through the process of releasing a record is a really invaluable experience. Only after you can tell what are the weak parts, and what are the stronger parts, and what you could have done better. So I wouldn’t say it was a challenge. I would definitely put a much more positive. Any music project I get involved in – and I tend to get involved in a lot of them – are also ways of expanding my ear. Maybe your technique as well. Which, again, is a by-product. Mainly it is about understanding better some specific kinds of music, even down to tuning your ear better at different levels. For example there are some songs where I now notice some notes out of tune. You hear things back, and your ear meanwhile has been developing and growing, and you notice, “Oh, that’s a bit flat.” I couldn’t tell in the studio, but now I can. It’s an instinctive will to progress and to improve. Also technically, but most importantly as an all-around musician.

HRH: Tell us about the other project you are in – the British prog-rock band Crippled Black Phoenix.

KD: Prog-ish. (Smiles). People say we are “post-rock”, but I don’t know what that means, so whatever. (Laughs). Recently I was thinking it must have something to do with post-modernism. I don’t know if it does, and if people think we are post-rock, and if post-rock has something to do with post-modernism, then we are definitely not a post-rock band. I don’t see any post-modern aspects in CBP music. Our music is very heavy and very full of direct links to the way we are and the way we see things. It’s not an exercise in style.

HRH: Sitting there without interacting with each other.

KD: Exactly. I think Crippled Black Phoenix are very heavy, very demanding band to listen to.

HRH: My next question is not targeted at your place in Crippled Black Phoenix, but is a more general one. Would you say that being in a band to any musician is ultimately a compromise to an extent where being yourself and being in a band becomes a contradiction in terms?

KD: If you are leading a band then you have all the freedom you want short of appearing to be schizophrenic. But I would not say that playing in a band implies that you are not being yourself.

HRH: Let’s put it that way: “You are not able to realise yourself to the full extent when you play in a band.”

KD: I would say that you focus your creativity in one direction. But this could be just as fulfilling as having your own band or playing acoustic stuff by yourself, which is maybe probably the maximum amount of freedom you can get – just you yourself and your guitar. So I don’t think you have to necessarily have to shut down parts of yourself when you are in a band, but you kind of know that the band has an identity and a backbone, and you have to bring your goods to the table in accordance with that. I see all of bands I play with – and this probably also applies to the future projects – as different frameworks for saying whatever I want to say. But you are still saying what you want to say, you just use a different medium.

HRH: Looking back on your singing on this record, are you happy with the way your singing comes through?

KD: I know that my voice in general needed more care and attention. That last bit of the recording and was done in a rush. There are a few songs where I think that the vocals are were they should be, but I’m not too fussed about it. Because it’s something to work on the next time. Because if you feel that something is pertinent, then you have nothing else to say. And also you think, “Well, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if this note is a bit out of tune, or that a line I sang is not sang with the proper feel”. Basically, it’s a snapshot, it’s an image of me and a bunch of guys going into the studio in that specific time. I know that I am very demanding and analytical when it comes to the production side. But I also know and also hear that sometimes you have to leave things as they are because that’s what keeps things real. If everything is polished and everything is exactly where it is supposed to be then it’s not you anymore. Each one of us has our own little thing, we all see the word differently from one another, and you have to recognise that that’s actually a part of who you are.

HRH: From the perspective of having worked in this industry as a PR person, before deciding to dedicate all of your time to music, what is your take on the state of the record industry at the moment?

KD: I can talk about it, but I am not an expert to gauge what’s happening in the music industry. I am not involved in that. I just have a feeling that the music industry crisis – digital downloading and all that – shows the very short-sighted attitude on the part of the industry. I just feel that no-one was prepared for any of that. And everybody started to act – possibly in a wrong way – when it was too late.

HRH: Both musicians and the executives.

KD: Exactly. What is amazing when you think about it, is that people in big record companies who are paid a lot of money are supposed to be on top of their game. And they just didn’t see that coming at all.

HRH: I think it also exposes the nepotism at the heart of the record industry. So there was no real vision and dubious levels of competence.

KD: New generation are used to getting things quick and for free. I think that – again – maybe it’s a utopian hope, but I think that people are already, or will eventually understand the difference between…

HRH: …Selling a product as opposed to expressing who you are?

KD: Yeah, and that’s where people will say, “I really like this band, I really respect what they are doing…”

HRH: “And I’ll pay for it.”

KD: Yeah, maybe they will download it, but they will pay to see the show, and then probably buy the CD to have an autograph, and they will want to shake your hand, or buy a T-shirt and feel like part of the band while supporting it financially as well.

HRH: What we see right now is profound disrespect from the listening public toward musicians.

KD: But isn’t it the other way around as well? (Laughs).

HRH: Absolutely. It’s like, “Oh, who started it?” Musicians started it. Labels started it.

KD: They almost got what they deserved in a way.

HRH: Yes. They were shoving product without any soul or meaning down our throats for decades, and that’s how people lose respect and stop having any qualms about stealing from them.

KD: Exactly. And, you know, I think maybe it won’t be too bad if things go back to the basics where the emphasis is for people will come out to see live shows. I would say this is a more egalitarian and politically correct way of doing things.

HRH: Ha-ha! “You want money – you go on the road!”.

KD: Exactly. (Laughs). And isn’t it what music is about?

HRH: Not necessarily. For someone who is recording in the studio something very complex and very layered, and who is very intimidated about the stage or having anything to do with touring and the nightmare that comes with it, they are heading for hard times.

KD: That’s true. But let’s say that for the vast majority of people it’s not that hard.

HRH: Especially in rock’n’roll.

KD: Yes, in rock and pop. This will diminish the gap between the artist and the audience. Having bands touring and making a living by playing live. Or even playing in their back yards or in a pub down the road. I think there’s something profoundly more respectable and more honest in one-to-one relationship with your audience. At the end of the day, there’s is an intrinsic limit in the mass-produced products. You make a CD and you print 10 thousand copies. But when they are coming to a show, they will have a much more intense and a much more complete idea of what’s it all about.

HRH: Those are the roots of your first solo record. It started with you jamming with your friends in local pubs and clubs, didn’t it?

KD: Yes. I think there is a big value to that. I don’t do that any more because I don’t have time. But I will never get tired of just jamming with friends down the pub. There is a very silly way of putting it: “Do you want to go out and have a drink and talk with your friends, or do you want to go out, have a drink and play? And maybe even have a bit of money from that?” You know? (Laughs). And still talk with your friends and still have a good time. So yeah, to me it’s not even a question. It’s something that should be the natural environment for any musician. Even the very famous ones, even the very respected ones, we SHOULD all walk down the road and join the jam session on a Friday night. For one, you almost destroy the divide between the public persona and the fan, and you become a person in a pub enjoying a few songs and having a good time. It can only be a good thing. A good thing to you, your soul, and your friends, and your social life. I’m just hoping that with all the changes in politics this will not go out of the window and they will not start taxing or putting their hands into live music – rock sessions and folk sessions, and all that. Because it’s invaluable. Even if you want see this from a very cold music-industry point of view and in terms of future profits, that’s the best ground for developing next generations of musicians. . So yeah – support live music, support local live music. If it’s good. (Laughs). If it’s not good – don’t.

HRH: Say a few words about your plans for the near future.

KD: I’m writing other material now, and at some point I’ll see where it fits best. Ideally I’d like to do another CD like ‘Cross The Mountain’ but I’m also very attracted by the idea of recording something more intimate – more acoustic-sounding. Either totally solo, or with very sparse and basic bass, drums and acoustic instruments. So eventually I might end up working on two solo CDs.

HRH: Tracy Chapman-ish kind of stuff?

KD: I don’t know what it’s going to sound like because the direction of my so many influences. Listening back to my other recordings, they sound vaguely Americana, and sometimes vaguely country, but there is always a different twist to it. So we are not going to be miles away from American singers-songwriters. I’d like to do something in that vein. And on a practical level I would really like to have an option of going on tour with just my acoustic guitar.

HRH: In England?

KD: All over the world.

HRH: The States?

KD: Yeah. In fact, I used to do that, a long time ago. Until 5 or 6 years ago I used to do a lot of acoustic shows – blues, stuff like that, that’s where the slide guitar comes from. But then I went into other bands and projects and lost touch with that a little bit. So I think it would be a good time – whenever I have time – to revisit that. To write a bunch of original songs, maybe a couple of covers and do something like that. So that’s number two. There is also another project which is a collaboration with other musicians from other countries and bands. Too early to say though.

HRH: Have you been asked?

KD: Yeah, we’ve been talking. It might be a studio-only collaboration. We’ll see

HRH: Heavy music?

KD: Not heavy. I don’t like to use the word prog, but…

HRH: Older generation – newer generation?

KD: Older generation. Something a little bit more involved technically.

HRH: Keyboard players?

KD: Yeah.

HRH: Jon Lord? (Laughs).

KD: (Laughs). Not THAT famous! Again, I’d like something that will push me a bit into more complex textures It is still too early to say, but then again, I am writing stuff, and at some point I will get back to it and see what can be arranged. Ideally it will be with three other musicians and start exchanging ideas.

HRH: You don’t have to be in the same studio these days to begin working on stuff.

KD: Exactly. At some point we can say, “Enough material, let’s record it and see what happens.”

HRH: Good luck with it all. We are looking forward to all of your collaborations and all of your other projects. And thank you for your time.

KD: Thank you.

Photos appear courtesy of Kara Rokita