Interview of Claude Cahn from Vengeful Cousins
You put out the album “Where Have You Been” recently with a band entitled “Vengeful Cousins”. First off, how did the idea come about to put out an album; and how did you choose the songs that ended up on it?
“Where Have You Been” is an album of ballads, meaning songs that tell a story or have a narrative line of some sort. I had been wanting to make an album of ballads for quite a while. I have a number of them in my regular repertoire, and I also thought it would give me the excuse to learn some other ones that I had been wanting to learn for a while, but are harder or weirder, so would take some effort. I thought making a record would be a good way to do that. Also, my wife Cosmina gave me a recording machine as a gift, and I kind of needed a project to kick myself in the ass to learn how to use it.
About half of the songs on it were chosen by other people. Recording with friends across international boundaries has gotten much easier in recent years – you can email files around and get people to add tracks in various different places. I did my best to rope in other people and to get them to play their favorite ballads for the record. I wanted “Where Have You Been” to be a project among musical friends.
Who are the Vengeful Cousins? Where did you meet them, how did they come together…?
Well that’s the thing: The Vengeful Cousins don’t really exist. The ballads project came first and the band came after. We’ve never had a concert and many of the Cousins have never met each other. I was going to call the group “Claude Cahn and Friends”, but Joe Armstrong, who played a very big part in the making of “Where Have You Been”, said he fell asleep halfway through the name, so I had to go back to the drawing board. I have always had a gift for naming bands, except my own bands, where I usually draw a blank, so that was one of the more difficult aspects of making “Where Have You Been”.
The musicians on “Where Have You Been” are pretty much anyone I have played music with in the past thirty years and who could be persuaded into contributing to this project. They include people from bands in Prague, Berlin, Budapest and Geneva, and currently scattered on 3 continents. From my recent homes, only Brussels resisted successfully.
Tell us about how – where, under what circumstances etc – did you record the album?
Some of it was done in my attic in Geneva, with this machine my wife Mina gave me – a Zoom R8. Along the way, Mark Mulholland persuaded me that my microphones were crap, so I got an upgrade about halfway through. Christina Crowder recorded tracks at her home in Hamden, Connecticut, in the US. Mark Mulholland recorded some things from his fief in Central France (if you listen carefully to “Beeswing”, you can hear the peasants revolting against his bloodthirsty rule). Tony Rose and Laura Kamp recorded “When the Roses Bloom Again” in Prague. Probably well over half was recorded in Marcus Fister’s flat in Berlin, a lot of that with Joe Armstrong. Marcus has great gear and is way fun to hang out with. He also likes to go deliberately through the process of trying various things out, which is a good contrast to how I work. I am an Aries: my method is to try to get as swiftly as possible from point A to point B, ideally plowing through walls along the way.
In the Berlin recording, there were a bunch of those beautiful musical days which start a bit after lunch and go to about midnight or however long you can last without food. For the mixing, everything had to get past Joe Armstrong, who is a stubborn perfectionist. At various points my wife weighed in to veto things. So I think we had a very pleasant and pretty rigorous creative process.
In your other life :) you’re a UN Human Rights Officer, and were active for example documenting human rights abuses in 2015-16 on the Serbian border when so many people were coming over the Mediterranean, and also worked on Roma inclusivity and…the list is a long one. Do you think that these experiences in your life have influenced or worked themselves into the music? Or have something with the urge to make it?
As practiced, human rights work is pretty legalistic, which is about as far from music as you can get. I had a nervous breakdown several years ago. Music has been a lot about trying to stay sane. Recently though I have been involved in developing programming on the interface between human rights and the arts. I am currently involved in an annual project providing awards to minority artists working on human rights themes: www.ohchr.org/minority-artists-voice-and-dissidence. That has been hugely rewarding, spirit-wise. Last year, we recognized three minority artists woking on statelessness themes: Jean-Philippe Moiseau, a Haitian artist in the Dominican Republic; Zahra Hassan Marwan, a formerly stateless artists from Kuwait now living in the US and writing children’s books about her experiences; and Abdullah, a stateless photographer from the Myanmar Rohingya community, currently living in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. We also gave honorable mention and publicity to 4 other remarkable artists, including two from the Afghan Hazara community, currently living in exile. You can see their remarkable work in this catalogue: www.ohchr.org/ONLINE-Exhibition-Catalogue-Minority-Artists.pdf.
Funny story, but a telling on for our times: when we informed Zahra that she had won and asked her for her bank details, she thought it was a scam and refused to send them to us. The artists contest has also helped us put together a community of minority artists, because we work with a voluntary judge’s panel made of mostly of other minority artists. For example, this year and last year, the panel has been chaired by Yvonne Apiyo Brändle-Amolo, an artist of African descent, who is also a Member of Swiss Parliament. This year’s contest focusses on minority artists working on intersectionality themes. We will announce the winners in November. Keep an eye out!
You also talk about the importance of stories; we often forget, I think, in the modern music industry about the fact of songs telling of a time and a place, and being part of the fabric of our world as it moves forward over time. Can you tell us about that? About your feeling for and/or understanding of this idea of songs as storytelling, to be handed down through the generations and so on?
I like that story about Bob Dylan, that when he went to record “Blowin’ in the Wind”, the producer recording it did not believe he wrote it, because it sounded timeless. I am a failed songwriter: I stopped writing songs because I discovered I could not express what I wanted to in that language. So I leer in at the world of the capable.
I also have huge admiration for the people of the folk traditions who manage to pull gems from the deep past, dust them off and make something magical now. The title track on “Where Have You Been” is ripped from Alisdair Roberts’s take on the folk standard which is usually called “The House Carpenter”, a morality ballad which is several hundred years old about a woman who abandons her family to run away with a lover, but the lover turns out to be Satan. Roberts gives it this morbid patina, situating it in Scottish seafaring. The whole album is worth a listen; there are like 15 deaths by song 4, including one person pricked to death by needles: www.youtube.com/sLIyDG12kkSma8
How did you meet up with Mark Mulholland, the man behind POCM – any funny stories?
I met Mark in 1992 and played in a bunch of bands with him in Prague, Ireland and Berlin. We have gone down many roads together. I have lots of stories about Mark, but probably most of them are not for print. Mainly I love Mark, rely on him for a huge range of expertise from musical equipment to the nature of sound to the administration of musical things in the internet age and lots of stuff in between. He is one of the many people on this record whom I can call a dear friend, and when we make music together, I think that comes through the sound. “Love is making music with my friends,” as Willie Nelson said, sort of.
Do you see a second album coming from The Vengeful Cousins? And if so, when, where, how, and which songs would you think about including?
Definitely, definitely. I have my eye out constantly for ballads for a second record. Recently I bumped into this beautiful item : www.youtube.com/wQbRlcOCO, and I thought “That one is definitely for Volume 2”. Josh Ritter’s “Another New World” is also on that list. Both of those are about 4 steps past the limit of my abilities, so it’s entirely possible that I won’t manage, which is part of the reason I put them here. I would also like Volume 2 to have songs from outside the Anglophone tradition, and from places outside the US, UK and Ireland, which was the source of pretty much everything on “Where Have You Been”.
But apart from keeping my eyes peeled for good ballads, I am not working actively on Volume 2 right now, and it probably will take a bit of time before I get to it. I am mainly playing trad now. In recent years I have been trying to master fiddle, the queen of all instruments, but it is a work of great struggle. I am in two Irish groups in Geneva, am trying to organize a course of Romanian music with two masters for the coming year. I’m also studying Arab Andalouse music and Swedish trad when I have the time, and I am in a Bulgarian dance group. This summer I plan to go to two old-timey festivals in the US. So probably the next recording I do will grow out of one of those endeavors, we’ll see.