13 Questions with A. J. Kaufmann

by HST UK on July 9, 2011

A. J. Kaufmann is a romantic in the best sense, a man who runs on the freewheeling spirit of beatific ghosts, Krautrock rhythms and the howling wolves of Poznan. The poet and musician kindly answered our 13 Questions.

HST: I listened to a few of your tracks up at myspace.com/officialajkaufmann, and found the music to be a unique mix of sixties influenced folk balladry, decadent Low-like synths and vaudevillian storytelling. What clay has helped to mold your forthcoming album ‘Second Hand Man’?

Most of the songs, except “The Claw” and “There’s a Sign”, were actually written way back in 2005 when I was an under-age busker hanging out in Cracow with a 19 y/o beginning actress. I guess that’s where the vaudevillian storytelling aspect of the music comes from. Sixties influenced folk balladry probably comes from the music I listen to relaxing at home: Bob Dylan, Donovan, Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, CSN&Y etc. “Decadent synths” are the idea of my co-arranger and performer, Andrzej Mikolajczak, also known as Andre Mikola, a great organist, keyboard player and synth wizard making music in Poland since the early 60s with Niebiesko-Czarni and other legends of Polish beat and rock’n’roll. His synths shine especially in “The Claw”, which was already compared to Roxy Music and Kraftwerk, and “There’s a Sign”, both early 2006 tracks which were given new life thanks to Andrzej’s creative arrangements.

HST: I was recently listening to a composition CD of tracks from the seventies at work, one of the songs featured on the compilation was Lulu’s version of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, I found this to be superior to Bowie, and also Nirvana’s versions of the song. As a Bowie fan, tell me about your own views on ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, and how you initially became a fan of The Thin White Duke?

I think Lulu’s version is pretty cool, as is Nirvana’s… it’s such a beautiful song that you can’t go wrong performing it. I haven’t heard a bad cover of “The Man Who Sold The World” yet, but I’m pretty sure no other performance is superior to Bowie’s. My favorite version is David Bowie’s “duet” with Klaus Nomi. Coincidentally, “The Man Who Sold The World” is one of my favorite Bowie albums, and there are lots of tracks on it far better than the title song. This was the first Bowie album I bought, after seeing his early video for “Space Oddity” on some Polish music channel. I immediately went to my favorite music store and as they didn’t have “Space Oddity” in the cheapo section, I bought a used copy of “TMWSTW” instead which they luckily had for sale – and I got hooked…

HST: Bands and musicians often travel to Berlin to capture the magic of the old guard, what is it with nostalgia, why are we so captivated by the ghosts of music’s past? I mean, all my musical heroes died a long time ago, even the ones that are alive, isn’t it better to appreciate greatness, but not to worship it?

I traveled to Berlin for completely different reasons – I was looking for a calm, relaxing atmosphere to write poetry, which at that time I couldn’t find in Poland. Now I regret traveling to Germany, because after visiting and living in Paris and Tangier in 2009 I realized every city and country is the same, and only in your own, let’s call it soul, you can find that tranquility and harmony you need to write poems or songs. As to appreciating greatness, I think you are right, and as always, we build too many altars for too many idols.

HST: You’ve lived in Berlin for a time, it seems to me, from my experiences with Polish people is that they are unafraid to move abroad to improve their circumstances, or take a punt and try somewhere new, why is this?

We’re certainly unafraid to move abroad, but for the reasons you’d have to ask hard working people, not artists. I simply wanted to move somewhere where I could live as a full-time artist, and, in a way, I succeeded – writing “Satori in Berlin”, participating in amazing jam-sessions with highly skilled musicians, playing or singing to African and Latin rhythms, merging East with the West with Turkish friends – but on the other hand, when I listened to bands like Embryo or other “krautrock” bands from the 60s and 70s I realized it’s all been done before and it’s actually nothing new that’s happening in Berlin clubs and venues in 2008, so I moved back to Poland. Funny thing is that we still don’t have such jam sessions here… and such musicians… oh, well… I can’t tell for other Poles, but from 2011 on I’ll only try new things in my own soul and my pockets, not in other countries, as I think circumstances are mostly the same in Europe, European Union right now, and there’s no need to improve your status by working, artistically or otherwise, in UK or Germany anymore.

HST: Aside from Germany, how many other countries in Europe have you visited, and what ones would you like to visit someday?

In Europe, I have only been to France so far, but I’d love to see Spain and Italy one day. My priority however is visiting my friends in the USA, perhaps in late 2012.

HST: At work I was talking to a colleague about how the company we work for is setting up a number of businesses across Europe, it seems every city is becoming identikit, same shops, same office blocks, and same billboards, how wary are you of getting dragged away by the corporate devil?

I’m pretty sure there’s no corporate devil except on the TV screen, so there’s no need to be on your guard or start acting paranoid. I simply ignore same supermarkets, office blocks and billboards and buy in small shops supporting micro, small and family businesses. I buy in second hands, flo-marts, tiny bookstores, butcher’s, baker shops etc… Thankfully, there are no office blocks in my district, though there are some ugly ones in Poznan, but still very few comparing to Warsaw, where you’re sure to get that feel of “high tech cities” theoretically climbing up, but practically going nowhere along with you and a million nameless pawns.

HST: ‘Love Lions’ is the title of your upcoming chapbook from KSE, talk to me about the genesis of this particular book?

“Love Lions” was written in Paris especially for KSE and it’s got a strong music connection. One summer evening I was sitting and smoking in a cheap hotel room, thinking about glam rock, space-age poets and lost loves, listening to Marc Bolan and Tyrannosaurus Rex, sketching dragons in my notebook… an hour or two later I realized I’ve sketched something more reminiscent of a lion and I wrote down the line “I kiss / Drifting love lions / With a golden smile” which later, upon my return to Poznan, became the first line of the title poem. Most of the other poems were composed while humming imaginary words with a grungy guitar accompaniment, but the melodies have since been lost as we had no recording equipment, not even a laptop, in my room. Some of my friends think I used cut-up techniques to develop these poems or “lyrics”, but truth is I definitely stopped doing cut-ups last year. “Love Lions” is, in my opinion, a glam-rock version of “Siva in Rags”, with dusty beauty gone all shiny and chromed, with once dried blood now boiling to the sound of “All the Young Dudes”.

HST: You have a long standing relationship with your publisher Kendra Steiner Editions, talk to me about that relationship and how it has evolved over the years?

Kendra Steiner Editions is my favorite small press, so it’s a great honor to be working with Bill Shute since 2008’s “Siva in Rags”. Bill was the first person in the States to discover my talent and give me a chance to publish my very first American chapbook. We kept in touch via e-mail, we exchanged gifts and we’re now close friends, though we never met in the flesh. We worked on our collaborations sending poetry over the ocean and I think over the years we became more like “partners in crime”, if you know what I mean… I love Bill’s aesthetics, his approach to writing, his own work and almost everything KSE issues… Things haven’t really “evolved”, rather “revolved” and I find it interesting how two different people from two distant corners of the world are so spiritually similar, circle same orbits, that in fact Bill is my natural publisher and I’m pretty sure I’m one of his favorite KSE poets. We love the same artists, same records, movies… but not only that – it’s a natural, honest kind of friendship that I really value and respect and I hope it lasts forever.

HST: New Polish Beat is the name of your own publishing press; I noticed that things have gone quiet with that, do you hope to get NPB up and running again?

NPB is in fact still running, but I’m currently changing the profile from chapbooks into full-length books. It’s quiet, because I don’t like over-advertising things that are humble and simple. The first full-length book will be my own “I’m Already Not Here”, originally published by Shadow Archer Press back in 2009, in an expanded and revisited edition that should be interesting for every fan of my work. Later on I plan to get in touch with the authors I published in the chapbook format and ask them if they’d be interested in doing a full-length book for NPB. As of today I can’t really blurt out any release date for this first NPB full-length, so shhhh… let’s keep it quiet.

HST: Do you still stay in touch with the poets you published at NPB?

I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t… I’m not a fan of sending them e-mails asking “how are you?” and talking in chat rooms, so I don’t send messages this way, unless it’s “business” or serious trouble – I don’t hear from these poets either, but hey, if somebody sends me an e-mail, I always respond. Also, at this point I’d like to greet Steve Calamars and Michael Aaron Casares, whose NPB chapbooks were best received in Poland, just to let them know I haven’t forgotten them and their work.

HST: A movie adaptation of ‘On The Road’ is currently in development, it appears likely that yet another Beat Renaissance is likely take a place, what impact do you believe this might have for Today’s youth if the film is critically successful?

I haven’t heard of this adaptation before, but I’m skeptical… There was this Uschi Obermaier sort of “craze” back in 2007 with the movie “Das Wilde Leben”, or “Eight Miles High”… It was supposed to bring the 1968 spirit back to Europe or whatever, and despite the fact that it’s a nice little pop movie, it never was the hit it was supposed to be, and even a well-known cover of Lee Hazlewood’s “Summer Wine” didn’t help to promote this flick enough to make an impact on today’s youth. Also, “Das Wilde Leben” was more about fashion than revolt, and the only impact I’ve noticed included my girl who started wearing 60’s inspired clothes. I’m afraid that today’s youth adapts mostly fashion, not “state of mind” or “awareness”. So, if a “Beat Renaissance”, whatever that means, is likely to take place after “On the Road” hits the screens, you won’t see me wearing “beatnik clothes” in the cinema, watching another exploitation of the Beats or any other revolution that won’t happen again. This, unfortunately, isn’t the era of “Easy Rider”.

HST: By nature you’ve always seemed to be such a prolific artist, how do you manage your time in terms of the creative process, how easy does the composition process come to you – do you wait for inspiration, or do you tap in to the vein whenever it pulses?

The composition process is not always easy, and it’s certainly hard to even begin describing it… Right now I’ve got about ten notebooks, sketchbooks full of ideas, new and old, laying around in my apartment… I carry a notebook wherever I go and I write down everything that’s “clever” enough – my thoughts, neon ads, shop window notes, graffiti messages, riffs, lines from the movies I watched and then I choose the phrases and lines I like and start building a poem or a song around them. Lots, if not all of the “borrowed” stuff gets trashed and then “my own” poem or song is being born. It can take an hour, it can take 5 years – that’s the amount of time I worked on “Pyramid Blues” because of the lyrics. Despite a simple title and a painfully cliché Oriental/blues melody, the lyrics troubled me this long. I never wait for inspiration – inspiration always finds me in front of my notebook or a laptop or my favorite computer that’s almost like Clark Nova. I know that it’s my hands that are moving, but my mind definitely doesn’t belong to me at this point of my “writing career”.

HST: Where does A. J. Kaufmann hope to be in ten years’ time?

We’ll see what the weather brings… I hope I’ll be running a small, but productive recording studio somewhere in Europe and live happily with my family which I love very much.


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