Pop Levi - Hollywood Pop
Wednesday, 13 August 2008
Pop Levi has been making his own blend of fuzzy indie pop for the last few years. We had Cyclone chat to the Englishman about the Hollywood lifestyle, R Kelly’s pet sharks, and keeping things fresh.
Pop Levi may dream of being a movie star but, for now, he's leading the glam revival. And, after selling out his first gigs in Australia on the back of The Return To Form Black Magick Party, he has a new album.
Never Never Love sounds nothing like the LP he touted in interviews last year. "It's definitely a weird record," Levi affirms.
The Brit originally spoke of going RNB with his band, Woman. "It's gonna be the first RNB record to be made by a Caucasian four-piece rock group from Liverpool," he extolled. That project didn't pan out.
In the end, Levi abandoned Woman. The maverick has since devised an all-new live show that he hopes to bring to Australia.
Born Jonathan Levi in London, his father a doctor, the aspiring muso hooked up with Ladytron in Liverpool. He toured as the electro-pop group's bassist, later describing the experience as his apprenticeship.
Levi also released music on Ninja Tune as part of the experimental Super Numeri. The combo, comparable to the krautrock Can, is now "defunct", he says.
Levi channeled Marc ‘T Rex’ Bolan on The Return... - while referencing Cee-Lo and betraying an affinity with the loopy Beck.
Today Levi resides in Los Angeles, where he's pursuing a film career.
The expat notes the irony that, though he's settled in the US, subversive American creatives have traditionally been lured to a liberal Europe. "I love that - it's the opposite of what Jimi Hendrix did," he laughs.
Los Angeles is bereft of counterculture - and eccentricity - but he's not concerned. "I don't go out of my way to become Americanised - not at all,” he says. “I just do what I wanna do and stay at home and make music and film and live a quiet yet bizarre little life in a Mexican district here in LA. I don't have any political bents. I'm not looking for anything particularly American, although the blues are American and that's my first love."
Indeed, Levi has dabbled in filmmaking himself (check his mini "bio-pics", as he calls them, on MySpace) but, as of yet, doesn't have a profile on the definitive www.imdb.com. He chortles at the observation, revealing that another 'Pop Levi' is already listed. That guy was involved in one film, the '40s wartime movie Tokyo Rose, as still photographer. There are, however, several Jonathan Levis...
For the present, Levi is leaving his mark in music.
In some respects, Never Never Love is true to his earlier vision. It is more 'R&B'. He's sublimated the rock. Yet the album retains that psychedelic nuttiness.
Levi actually recorded Never Never Love at Quincy Jones' old studio, Westlake, where Michael Jackson cut Thriller. "I got to use all the same mics, the same piano, the same room, same desk, same speakers as they did to make that record. That was a good buzz. I'd never made a record in Hollywood before - and it's something I always wanted to do. "It's very different from the first record. I knew that certain groups of people who would like the first record for certain things wouldn't really like this one. I wanted to make it more challenging.
"I'd rather people didn't like it and create a record that I thought that nobody else would be making this year. It doesn't sound like anything else, which has gotta be a good thing."
Levi loved the atmosphere at Westlake - and that permeates Never Never Love. "Anyone who does anything on any scale which is creative, the way in which they do it totally affects their mood and the outcome. Like I said, I'd always wanted to make a record in Hollywood and, choosing that studio, which had birthed the world's biggest-selling record, was inspiring, to say the least. It was something that I was totally into everyday. I went there six days out of every seven for four months. It's only what it is, it's only a studio, but it gave me what I wanted for this record."
Surrounded by Hollywood glitz, Levi still perversely favours "extreme music" over (homogeneous) pop. And, at that, Never Never Love is avant-garde pop.
Having the chameleonic David Bowie as his idol, Levi has vowed not to be one of those artists who repeat themselves. But he's come to appreciate why others do just that. "I think I understand. I think that it's because essentially, living in a modern world based so tightly around, say, television, it stops people from doing what they really want to do. I mean, if people did what they really wanted to do, they wouldn't be stuck with just the idea of a four-piece rock band. Why would you solely do just one thing- To open your mind and do as much as possible is surely what everybody really wants to do, isn't it- Isn't that a uniting factor among humans- But people don't feel they can do it 'cause they'd look idiots. I suppose I don't mind looking like an idiot, 'cause I'll be dead one day."
Needless to say, he doesn't care about record sales.
Levi blocks out mainstream culture. He loves outlandish musicians such as Sun Ra. Nevertheless, he admits to an improbable contemporary favourite - R Kelly. "I can't wait for the new R Kelly album!" Levi blurts out. "I just think he's amazing. I'm a big fan. A serious fan.
"I think that R Kelly has suddenly started being good,” he continues. “He has this way of presenting really every day things, like songs about ring tones, and just making it work in some way that only somebody like him could. That's worth something for me. I really love that. I also like the way that he makes all his own records and produces and writes and plays. He's cool, man. His records are definitely better than Prince's new records, I reckon.”
"I think I can go out there and say that [Kelly] makes records in a very 'black' way,” he states. “He doesn't make records like when Dylan was considering the cover for Highway 61 Revisited. White people tend to look at records either as pure pop or some kind of cultural event, whereas I don't think R Kelly thinks of them like that at all. He's just putting out more and more and more music, as much as he can. That's why people tend to think that his records don't hit home - 'cause he's not presenting them in the way that The Beatles did. The covers, everything, just seem so cheap and nasty. He obviously doesn't care. And they sell! I've been looking it up and he sells millions of copies every time. It's fucking outrageous!"
Levi even has his own R Kelly story. His US booking agent sings in a gospel choir, once invited to perform at a mystery location. They rocked up to Kelly's house, the R&B star hosting a private party. "They wanted a white gospel choir to sing for them." Bizarre enough. Best of all- In the superstar's hallway was an aquarium with two sharks in it. Levi, lover of kitsch, can't stop laughing.
WHO: Pop Levi
WHAT: Never Never Love out through Inertia
WHEN: Out Now