(Note: this interview was conducted in May 2012, originally for Band of the Day.)
As the famous Scout Motto goes, “Always Be Prepared” — which, oddly enough, applies just as much to writing a song as it does to starting a fire with nothing but two twigs. For the creative-minded individual, inspiration can strike at anytime. Think of how many writers you've seen whip out a tiny notebook to jot down a brilliant observation, or photographers snapping a candid picture when the light is just right.
For Kasabian's chief songwriter Sergio Pizzorno, one of the most useful devices in his scout kit is the voice memo feature on his mobile phone. The song “Switchblade Smiles,” from their latest album Velociraptor! started out as nothing but a few seconds of Pizzorno singing random noises that came into his head, and recording them on his phone.
“I can hear the whole song going around that 3 second thing...what is strange is that I know can fill in the gaps from something so tiny, and I’ve always been able to do it,” Pizzorno tells me during my interview with him before Kasabian's headlining show at San Francisco's Fillmore. Eight years have passed since Kasabian released their 2004 self-titled debut album and, supporting the 2011 release of their fourth and latest album Velociraptor!, the Leicester, England-natives are back on US soil.
Read on to find out what keeps one of the UK's most successful bands excited about creating music and touring, and how Pizzorno sometimes wonders what audience members have eaten for dinner (it's not delivery, it's Pizzorno).
Amanda Van West: On your latest album Velociraptor, I noticed a lot of themes of escapism, especially with songs like “La Fee Verte.” Were you conscious of that theme, and where would you say music helps you escape to?
Sergio Pizzorno: I’ve always wanted to escape really. I suppose [making music] that’s when I feel the most free and the most happiest I think. I suppose rock and roll is a way of life, really. When you're on tour you feel detached from anything, you don't really feel a part of a society. You feel like you’ve escaped from that, escaped from real work. Artists always tend to do that.
AVW: Doing so much touring around the world since Kasabian first started, what still keeps you excited on the road?
Serge: I’ve directed all my energy into being creative, making little videos, putting them out on a website, doing music, just having ideas. While I’m away and missing home, I’m gonna concentrate on making the show incredible and coming up with new ideas to make people excited. And I think that’s when I feel most happy, when I’m making shit, that’s what I love doing; making tunes, making little films. I love making stuff.
AVW: When you’re playing a song live, is your mindset completely in the present moment, or does it wander?
Serge: You know what? It’s weird...all things can happen when you’re [playing live]. Stupid things come into your mind when you’re playing.
AVW: Like what?
Serge: Like, “I wonder what she’s had for dinner that girl there?” Or “I wonder if that chandelier is gonna fall down?” I imagine it’s like being hypnotized. There are thoughts you can’t control, all that sorts of things come in your head and you catch yourself thinking ,“what the hell am I thinking about that for?”
AVW: Do you try to trace it back to find out what your original thought was?
Serge: Yeah, things like “I wonder if I left the gas on?” or “I can’t remember if the TV’s on,” and then I think to myself, “Shut up, I can’t think about that now, I’m playing! I’m playing the gig!” [laughs] It's strange.
AVW: What would you say is the most unusual catalyst you’ve ever had for a song?Serge: Well, it’s hard to say, there’s nothing really unusual about it but what probably is unusual would be how little the idea can be and you know it’s gonna be great. Like with “Switchblades” [“Switchblade Smiles”], I just had this idea, and I got my phone and went like [makes noises], and I can hear the whole song going around that 3 second thing, and I could play that to someone and they would be like “well that’s just you being weird, that’s just a weird noise”. What is strange is that I know can fill in the gaps from something so tiny and I’ve always been able to do it, I showed demos to people and they were going “yeah...that’s nice” and I realize, “Shit, they’re not hearing it out, and I’m hearing the end!”
AVW: It must be like when you write down notes for an outline of a whole essay before putting it together.
Serge: Yeah totally! I can’t draw but I’m sure it’s the same for artists, they’ll draw a few lines and they’ll know where to go. I can visualize what this is gonna be just like turning this voice memo into this huge tune.
AVW: Speaking about songwriting, how do you approach songwriting with Kasabian versus with someone like Noel Fielding [Pizzorno creates music for Fielding's sketch-comedy show, “Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy"]?
Serge: I suppose it's similar in the fact that I regard myself as much a producer as a songwriter. I don’t really write an acoustic and then go into a studio and 99% of the time it sounds how it did when I first wrote it. So I write with synths, I write with beats, I write with bass lines, so that’s similar. I write for Kasabian based on Tom being the singer, and having to sing these songs. Whereas with Noel Fielding, the great thing about it is that it's comedy, and a lot of music you love is quite funny, and it gives you a license to do things [that are comedic], which is quite amazing, quite freeing, really.
AVW: How important do you think it is to maintain a good sense of humor with your bandmates, and just with music in general?
Serge: I think it’s what keeps us together, that ability to pull yourself out and from taking yourself so seriously, is so vital. I mean because we take it very seriously on one level and people tend to miss the jokes, which is kinda nice for us because we tend to get away with it a bit more and there is a lot more humor than people realize is going on.
AVW: What would you say is the very first meaningful music experience that you can remember having?
Serge: I’d put it back to [Chuck Berry's song} “Johnny B. Goode.” My dad use to play and I remember thinking that guitar solo was one of the most incredible things. My dad had a guitar, but he couldn't play because it had no strings so he always used to pretend to play. And that was the moment, the real moment, music touched me in a way that I had no control over, and I think that'll remain forever.
AVW: Are you hoping your son will also get into music one day?
Serge: I think I am really. I say I’m not and I say I won’t try to influence him in anyway, but I do wish he will.
AVW: Do you play music for him?
AVW: Does he like it?
Serge: He does, and that’s gonna sound a bit weird but he does like our stuff. Every time it comes on the radio he goes mad, it’s well sweet! You start to feel conscious of yourself and he starts dancing and you go, “that’s incredible!” So maybe he just picks up a vibe. He does like things with a beat like techno. When he was really young, someone made a punk song and played them with a lot of baby sounds, like xylophones and stuff. Kinda like the Sex Pistols but on xylophone. He loved that.
AVW: What would you say you appreciate most about your other band mates?
Serge: I appreciate Tom’s love and care, he really looks after his brothers you know? He’s very special like that, he's always got his eye on you, and that’s kinda rare for men you know? Tom senses, and that’s really amazing. When you miss people, he is always there. Ian’s insanity, I love him for that. He’s an eccentric Englishman. He’s like a proper sort of 60’s drummer, they are quite normal but then go absolutely mental and I love him for that. Chris is solid, if the plane was gonna crash you’d want him to be pilot in the plane. Ben’s sense of humor, he has the ability to make me laugh always and I need that. And then Jay, we have that thing where only the two of us get something on some weird level, and it's great.
[2015 Update: Since doing this interview, Kasabian have released a new album called 48:13. It's rad.]