INTERVIEW: Michel Banabila on Trespassing

Brandon Hocura chats with Michel about Trespassing, music-making, and life in Amsterdam in the early 80's.

[BH] Can you tell me what got you interested in music growing up?

[MB] At home we had a piano, a violin, a guitar. I loved listening to music from when I was very young. My mother loved music too. I got a Miriam Makeba single from her and an Arthur Conley record from the neighbours. Other musical memories are Chanukah songs, as my stepfather was a Dutch Jew.

When I was 15, I left our home and started to live on my own in Amsterdam. I taped all kinds of stuff on cassettes. I had a Hohner Pianet with a phaser. I listened all sorts of music then. Like Genesis with Peter Gabriel but also lots of Arabic music.

My biological father left when I was two years old and I had little information about him, except that he was probably ‘Lebanese'. So I listened a lot to Lebanese singers like Fairouz, Wadih El Safi, without understanding the lyrics of course, as I did not learn to speak Arabic. Some 35 years later, I finally found my dad for a short moment in Switzerland. It turned out he was not from Lebanon but from Yemen. So since then I started listen to Yemeni music. I actually went to Yemen and recorded in the streets of Sana’a in the late 90’s.

I think it was when I turned 18, I heard about 8 track-studios in the city for the first time. As soon as I had some money to record a few hours in an 8 track studio I went, bringing some instruments like a kalimba, a small talking drum, shakers, a balafon, found objects like pots or bottles or toys, cassette tapes and so on. And in the studios they had lots of interesting things too, that I all saw for the very first time, like synthesizers, spring reverb and a space echo. I had some 'atmosphere' or some tunes in my head, and then just improvised, making a sound painting. I did not control any instrument, had no musical education, knew nothing about synthesizers, but strangely enough I did not worry about all that, I just wanted to record. I loved to think of all the things you could try in a studio. As you had to pay per hour, my improvising was probably a bit weird to the technicians. Also I was not always accurate with payment so hence the fact that I do not have any masters from that time.

Where were you living and what was your environment when you recorded Marilli?

When I was 15, I lived at the Sarphati Straat, opposite of the zoo in Amsterdam. Funnily enough, I now live opposite a zoo again, here in Rotterdam. Me and my friends saw concerts like The Stranglers and Blondie at Paradiso in 1977, which was very exciting. In 1984, I had my first gig at Paradiso during the Tegentonen Festival and I got very nice reviews. After a while, I started to live with some friends in a squat in 'De Pijp', close to the Albert Cuyp market. It was common those days to just break into some empty space and make it your home. In that neighborhood I met Cecil and Lesley who play on Marilli. Piet I knew already from high school. Cecil lived nearby. He played me tapes with music from Surinam.


There were a lot of drugs. LSD made quite an impact. I guess I was not ready for it. In a way I was really not doing well but not aware of that, not conscious of it. Some friends died due to drugs. It was a bit of a grim atmosphere at times. We were always short on money. Also, in the city there were lots of riots with the police over the squats. Besides negative things I also must say there was a good experimental and inspiring creative "do it yourself" climate. A bit different from how it is in The Netherlands now. There was this great music shop called Staalplaat that could sell my tapes. They played Marilli on the Dutch radio. Marilli was released in 1983, and two years later I was invited by a new group from Rotterdam called CHI to join their recordings and play live. We did a few concerts in The Netherlands and released a cassette early 1986. Recently, it had a very successful vinyl reissue by Astral Industries.

While sending you photos for artwork and listening back to Marilli, I suddenly realized for the first time how completely in contrast with my surroundings, the music I was making, was. I never thought of that before. Marilli sounds at times more like some exotic tropical island than the rainy Amsterdam in the early 80's.

How did that environment influence the album?

My apartment was quite empty, just a bed, TV, cassette player and tapes. My neighbourhood was noisy. I was a lonely stranger. Music quickly became the one and only thing that seemed stimulating, inspiring, uplifting... something to dream about.
I did not play live much with others besides some occasional jam session. The other guys were much more skilled and all playing frequently in funk / jazz bands. But they liked my strange recordings. Looking back, I think I perhaps was trying to imagine a place in sound where I would like to be.


What were some other influences on Marilli?

Obviously, I heard My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts in 1981. That was a bomb. Completely mind-blowing. A total shock. I never heard such a thing ever before and it made a huge impact on me. I played that LP so many times and still could discover something new every time. Even now, so many years later, this album still sounds fresh to me. It is just an amazing record. The use of these organic experimental rhythms, the use of all these voices, the strange new sounds and David Byrne’s fantastic guitar playing. Then somebody played this track 'Shadow' with Jon Hassell for me (Brian Eno / Ambient 4: On Land). On headphones. That was another bomb. I couldn't believe I was listening to a trumpet?! I really thought I was listening to an alien from outer space... total magic.

You took a lot of convincing to reissue the LP. What do you think of the album now and why do you think it resonates with so many people?

In the last three years I feel I am quickly losing every possible perception about the music world around me. It is so confusing. It might be a blind spot, but I came to the conclusion things are probably just different than I thought.

You see, around 1986 (and in the meantime, listening and exploring more and more of the music from artists like Brian Eno, Holger Czukay, Jon Hassell, Harold Budd and Sussan Deyhim) I started to hear my first albums with different ears: looking back, especially at Marilli, it started to sound to me like some pina colada version of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Me playing on a balafon with such a clumsy off-timing, and using tropical cliche melodies that suddenly seemed bizarrely primitive and silly. I got embarrassed about Marilli and forgot about those recordings.

So when lately, after so many years, labels started to contact me about it, at first I did not understand why. I did my best to persuade them to release recent material instead, but they wanted Marilli. I actually sold my last clean copy of Marilli on Discogs. Soon after that I started to realize that these people were not even born when I made the album, and that they probably grew up a lot more with digital sound. Also, I found out that those synthesizers I used are pretty hard to find these days, and that a lot of youngsters love analog old synths.

After being accustomed to quantized computer rhythm loops for so many years like everybody else, I am suddenly able to feel the charm in my off-time rhythms and the idealism I had, the faith that I could make something, no matter what. That the LP is full of errors but that these days an LP with errors is highly unlikely, as with computer production, all errors are being fixed. Above all, I began to like the ‘natural sound of space' on the record, the sound of the location where something was recorded, the studio space, because often I used tracks without added reverb. These days with computers you can make everything so enormously stereo, very wide, super hifi with huge reverb and all very crispy.  But maybe the danger might be that you lose this sense of place, of the location were something actually was recorded and that everything starts to sound the same. So for that reason I am becoming a little mellower and am listening to what people are saying about this LP.  I’m still embarrassed about that lion roar in B5 though.

Re-releasing the album with new and unreleased material is a nice way to bridge the arc of your career. How do you see the evolution of your music?

Like I said, I quickly lost my perception about the music world around me these last three years, and I do not know very well anymore what I am doing or how to look at it.
I did lots of collaborations the last years and I still love making recordings deeply. On LP1 of Trespassing I tried to make something that resonates with Marilli yet is also connected with what I am doing right now. Like a bridge from now back to then. I was actually very happy with that mixture. Like I made some peace with the guy from 1983.