Subsequent Pleasures: An interview with Anka Wolbert of Xymox

You desire seems to be have been more involved with the writing process and creation of the music, rather than being any sort of performer in the limelight. But I get a sense that you were drifting in that direction with Twist of Shadows and Phoenix. This makes me wonder if the fact that the bands biggest single being sung by you clashed with the megalomania you speak of? Do you feel you were attacked at all for grabbing any of the limelight whereas you were just trying to contribute to the collaborate effort of creating the music?

Yes, if you’re referring to Imagination, it surely did clash with Ronny’s wild and somewhat self-centered fantasies. It made him very nervous thinking my intent was to take over the limelight. Which it was not. I was quite happy with Ronny being the front man. But after the release and success of the Imagination single Polygram started pushing us to include more songs with me on vocals on our next album. They were suggesting half of the songs.. which wasn’t making Ronny very happy at all. Of course the next album with Polygram was never made because I split before then. Part of the reason I left was because of all of this tension between Ronny and I on our last US Phoenix tour. I was receiving a lot more attention than on our previous tours, mainly because Imagination was heavily rotated on college radio and MTV. This made Ronny furious. I felt I was walking a tightrope between trying to enjoy playing live, and keeping our relations as sane as possible. Which in the end proved pretty impossible, the whole thing blew up in a dressing room in Portland. We were three gigs away from our last gig of the tour in New York. I still completed the tour but it was obvious a line had been crossed. The whole situation had become very unhealthy, both physically and mentally. Our manager flew over to Portland and stayed with us till the last date. Although it took me a good few months after the tour until I made the final decision to split, the Portland incident was the defining moment.

So, with hindsight, the succes of Imagination weirdly split us up. I had had entirely different reasons for writing Imagination of course. First of all I simply wanted to find out if I could write a commercial song. Not too commercial or tacky but still commercial, and hopefully a pretty decent one at it too. Secondly, and this may sound contradictory, I was figuring it could have brought us more freedom. By that time I really wanted us to grow bigger in order to gain more artistic freedom and, not unimportantly, spend less time touring. We had done three major US tours, a lot of touring in Europe for years, and I wanted us to get to a level where we could set more of our own terms, and not feel we were being lived by major record label goals.

I was kind of looking at Talk Talk as an example at the time. I absolutely loved their Spirit of Eden album. Which had only been made possible because of their previous commercial success? It was so brave. Sadly it was also their last album so perhaps not the best example to go on! What’s quite interesting in this respect is that when I signed with EMI years later, in 1996, I tried to get Tim Friese-Greene to produce my album. He loved my demo which was great to learn but he was stuck in projects at the time and I would have had to wait for over a year so I ended up deciding against it. Which was a real shame.

Phoenix is an odd album, a bit disjointed, but some great songs on it (I really enjoy Believe me Sometimes, and the b-side Twisted), Personally, I hate Phoenix of My heart, as it sounds like a song by The Happy Mondays. So it seems strange to me that Xymox became such a “goth” band when Ronny started using the name again by himself.

I agree, Phoenix does sound disjointed. By that time, the ‘band’ and the writing process had become too fragmented. Ronny insisted on having all of ‘his’ songs included on the album whereas I would have liked ‘All Fold Up’ and ‘Twisted’ on it. I think that would have made it a much better album.

While I have you for this interview, I feel compelled to ask:  Two of my favorite Xymox songs are 7th Time and Masquerade; Can you tell me anything about the writing and composition of those songs?

7th Time originated with Pieter. He came up with the chord structure and I immediately loved the feel of it. Pieter and I shared a similar sense of musical aesthetics. We were both searching for that kind of beauty that can be so incredibly powerful and ineffable when it comes to music. You know it or recognise it when you hear it. Composing, you may stumble upon it. When lucky. Anyway, I really wanted to add my vocals to it, and the song took shape. Ronny played the bass! Like I mentioned before, it was these kind of songs that brought out the best in all three of us. The lyrics were about a girl I was madly in love with and I was lucky enough to have a short fling with. Until she ran off with a guy. Heart breaking stuff when you’re just 20.

Masquerade was the first song I wrote entirely by myself. These were the early days of computer programming. We had just made the progression from the Commodore 64 to the Atari ST, the first home computer with integrated MIDI support, and I played and programmed each and every note. It’s obviously a pretty sad song, but dreamy too? I’ve always been fascinated by the layers of conscious and subconscious parts of people’s behaviour when connecting to each other. And how difficult it can be. Your first relationships can be pretty overwhelming. What is you, what is the other, how much do you allow to be seen by the other, and vice versa. What makes it frightening. What hurts.

I found happier songs much harder to write. I wrote a few, like Smile like Heaven and Dark Dreamer. All of my songs are about women. Later on, I felt the need to take the love element expressed in music to a more philosophical or spiritual level. Which is something I still hope to explore more in writing music. I love Arvo Part’s music, and Gorecki. Also early latin music, like Tallis, and Indian chants. There’s a serenity there which pop music often lacks. A more universal exploration of love and angst.

Do you still keep in touch with Pieter?

Pieter left Xymox sooner than I did. I think we both found it pretty impossible and frustrating to work with Ronny but I stuck it out longer. Pieter absolutely hated touring so he had already dropped off after the second US tour. He still contributed a little to the Phoenix album but things were becoming more and more strenuous. Pieter and I always liked working together. It was easy and flowed in an organic way. We could both trust each other musically which is a rare find. When I split from Xymox, I lived in New York for a couple of years working on my own material. I then worked with Toni Halliday and moved back to London again. I signed a development deal with 4AD in 1994 and asked Pieter to join me on a project called Vaselyn. This led to our EMI deal in 1996. Sadly, EMI folded into Virgin a year later and we were left in limbo for a while and the album never got released. Much of this material I later used for the Cocoon album which Pieter co-produced. I now live in London, Pieter is in Amsterdam and we haven’t worked together musically for a long time. I work as a web developer which takes up my attention span pretty much all of the time. I had my studio setup and separate music laptop going for years but I find picking up my guitar most satisfying and free. I’m programming on a computer enough as it is so it’s nice getting away from it too.

How do you ultimately remember your time in Xymox?  Were there happy memories?

I have some great memories of those years. It was fab being part of a band in my 20s, to be growing musically and achieving some level of success. All of that was pretty exciting. Unfortunately Ronny tried to erase my part in Xymox many times, and also Pieter’s part, after he continued by himself. Initially I didn’t really care much about what happened to Xymox next, especially after I had just split and was working hard on my own material. I didn’t really care for the direction Xymox’ music took either after I had left. I personally find the rhetoric of goth identity pretty dull and musically way too confining. Mind you, this is apparently what Ronny really wanted to make all along? Which I don’t have a problem with, it’s been his band and solo project for many years now. But I did get fed up with my work in early Xymox being sabotaged by Ronny actively erasing my role and part in it. These are still my songs too and it’s just crazy. I’d like to look back on those years and feel proud of what we produced. I think Xymox fans roughly get a picture if they care to know and delve a little deeper.

Anka Wolbert | Cocoon Time

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