Over the years, Edmonton experimentalist Philip Dickau has traversed the sonic spaceways from harsh noise, to ambience, to overloaded electronics. His latest guise, Taiwan, has just took another left turn into a warped nightmare zone inspired by the sinister schmaltz of Twin Peaks, Vangelis soundtracks, and other VHS-era terrors.
Since expanding the project into a trio with guest vocals from the school of Julee Cruise, they've delved even deeper into lounge lizard territory while keeping the creep factor high. Toronto’s Pleasence Records is now set to release a Taiwan twelve-inch split with Hobo Cubes (whose Francesco De Gallo also created the music video below). I caught up with Phil and drummer Dave Ferris for a total nerd-out interview.
Noisey: Phil, you’ve made a pretty wide range of music over the years. Do you just get bored quickly and decide to try different things?
Philip Dickau: [laughs] Yeah, definitely. At the first Taiwan show, I asked Dave to play drums because I didn’t want to stand there alone with a keyboard. That’d be really boring, and I wanted to do something dynamic and interesting. We had a few rehearsals to get things together, and the second time we met up, I remember hanging my head and saying, “I’m rapidly losing all enthusiasm for this.” That was a year ago.
What originally inspired the creation of this project?
I bought this keyboard because it had a great piano sound, but then I found all of these cheesy presets and had so much fun making tacky music. It was a happy coincidence two winters ago that I started getting crazy about David Lynch. I was watching every single one of his movies, and had learned to play some of the Twin Peaks music around the same time I bought it. It has some patches on it that sound exactly like the soundtrack. I started to deconstruct Angelo Badalamenti’s ideas and see if I could make music in a similar style. Usually I get self-conscious about making music that’s cheesy, but I was going hard cheeseball.
Taiwan - "In My House" (video by Moduli TV)
Dave Ferris: What I find really funny are the different ways people are interpreting it based on whether or not they’re familiar with the references. We were recording a while ago with a guy who had never watched Twin Peaks, and he said, “You guys sound like the Star Wars soundtrack!”
Hmmmm, maybe the Cantina Band song...
Philip Dickau: We tend to end all of our shows with a cover of “Laura Palmer’s Theme,” which is perfect for some people who see us for the first time. They’ll be scratching their chins and thinking “This kind of sounds like Twin Peaks.” Then when we play that, they’re like, “Ah, I knew it!” People are used to hearing it now though, so we actually have joked around about playing the Cantina Band song instead. I used to be able to play it on piano when I was 10.
You’d need some different horn sounds, like an alien clarinet.
Dave Ferris: We could make homemade MIDI instruments that are exact replicas and go as the Cantina Band for Halloween. We could busk and make so much money.
Philip Dickau: I actually discovered recently that they have a name for that kind of music in the Star Wars universe, and it’s called “jizz”! If you play that kind of music, you’re called a “jizz wailer”.
That’s insane! Is that from the books that came after the movies?
Yeah, the expanded universe. It’s in all of their encyclopedias. [Eds. Note: He's not kidding. Check this out.]
Dave Ferris: I love how certain things gain steam and develop their own mythology. I bet jizz music has its hierarchy of different musicians, like, “He was really influential in the early bop jizz days.”
Philip Dickau: Apparently Hasbro made some toys that referenced it on the back, but they were afraid of using the word “jizz” so they just called it jazz instead.
Taiwan live at Wunderbar.
There’s also a lot of warp and warble to the Taiwan sound, and you guys have described it as "Direct-to-VHS romantic horror." What inspired that?
My experience of pop culture from the late 80s and early 90s was almost entirely through bootlegged media, because I was living in India at the time. I spent the first 16 years of my life there, where legal copies of English films and music were very uncommon. Part of this may be because of the highly restrictive economic and cultural policies the country held onto until 1991, but it’s probably more due to the fact that a significant portion of the country’s consumers had no way of affording legal copies. So all of the movies I rented as a kid came from dark hole-in-the-walls stacked with home-dubbed VHS tapes made from cam bootlegs (made by sneaking a camcorder into a movie theater). Even movies we bought in stores would often have missing or damaged scenes because they were duplicated illegally. From what I understand, most of these bootlegs originated in newly emerging East Asian economies, and that’s partly how I decided on the name Taiwan. It’s also because so many consumer electronics from the ’80s and ’90s--including VHS players and keyboards--were manufactured there. We recently discovered that Dave’s snare drum has the word “Taiwan” embossed on the bottom, which is pretty neat.
Did you want the project to be anonymous at first? I remember people passing around your Bandcamp link and having no idea who Taiwan was.
Yeah. I was originally going to put it out under my name like I have with my other music, but maybe I was just self-conscious. I wanted to be a sort of mysterious entity. That can get old pretty quickly though, like “Who is Daft Punk?” I didn’t want to be gimmicky.
Well, now you’ve revealed yourself as a live trio. I like the way it’s added more of the lounge jazz element while still giving off a sinister feeling.
I’m glad you described it as sinister because that’s definitely something I’m interested in. From the very beginning, and no matter who joins the band, one thing that remains constant is a sinister undertone beneath melodrama and schmaltz. That’s what I love about David Lynch. There’s so much cheesy shit, but with the pairing of Badalamenti it becomes even more sinister. The over-the-top melodrama makes it eerie because it’s so unnatural. It’s the uncanny value of emotion. The thing that really strikes me is that sometimes there’ll be a really romantic scene, and then all of a sudden you’ll hear ominous music in the background. Or they’ll be something freakish and disturbing with romantic piano music playing. I love that contrast; it's the most interesting thing I want to play with in our music and live sets. I try to evoke the same disconnect that makes people uncomfortable.
Dave Ferris: It’s almost like an inkblot test for audiences. Some people find it funny, while other people see it as really sinister. To be honest, the new stuff we’ve recorded sounds just as much as the Vangelis soundtrack for The Apocalypse of Animals as it does Twin Peaks, but I guess that’s the most salient feature.
Philip Dickau: Twin Peaks is obviously the main thing that influenced this project from the beginning, but there are lots of other ideas I want to explore. For one thing, I don’t want to be “the Twin Peaks band.” Nobody wants to be that band, right?
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