Joup Interviews: Paul Colilli: Canadian Doctorate, Musician and a Simply Saucer

This intrawebs fascinates me everyday because of the people I come across and what they have done with their lives. Take one Paul Colilli for example whom I had the privilege to interview for Joup. Colilli, recognized in the 70s Canadian Pop Culture with his time with Simply Saucer, boasts a Doctorate Degree in Medieval Italian literature. Now some 40 years after he’s recording music under his self-title. How in the hell did I come across someone like this? I think it’s worth a look-see.

“Hello Chester,

I’m Paul Colilli, a founding member of Simply Saucer…”

Paul, you have my attention.

“My newest solo album, ‘Hieroglyphs of the Soul’ (Flying Inn Recordings) has been released. By day I’m a university professor teaching and writing on Medieval and Renaissance literature and philosophy.”

Still have my attention.

“By night I compose music and commit myself to sonic projections. Each influences the other.”

“This new record comes out at a moment when there is a fascination with the end of times. This collection of music imagines what will happen between now and the final consumption of all things. Not zombies, vampires or apocalyptic visions of the cyber imagination. Rather, the music paints sonic portraits of the undecipherable signs that have surfaced on the material soul of the world. “Hieroglyphs of the Soul” is a journey into a future that is saturated with the past.”

Hello Paul,

I received your unsolicited email this evening (Greenwich Mean Time), and am currently giving it a listen. I mean ‘unsolicited’ in the most complimentary way; There was a C.S. Lewis book hanging around my house as a kid called ‘Surprised By Joy’…what a delightful title…maybe ‘Surprised By Joy’ is a definition of delight? Anyway, sounds about right, and that there’s a word and sentiment too seldom utilized these days. Anyway, thank you for flipping a speculatory email into the ether and including me among those you deigned to furnish with it.

Paul, I have to admit to never having heard of Simply Saucer. One simple search later and I’m pretty much converted into an acolyte overnight. I played one song on Youtube, and so decided to listen to your album. It’s different! That’s not a backhanded compliment, only a dumb-as-a-lump-of-dried-up-Play-Doh observation. There’s an undeniably stark contrast. But I’m not put off Paul, I’m no musical snob or purist, in fact it only makes you more intriguing to me. You offered yourself up for discussion, so I’m going to be the hack to take you to task.

I hope you don’t mind me asking you a few questions?

Hieroglyphs of the Soul by Paul Colilli (image: Flying Inn Recordings)

Hieroglyphs of the Soul
by Paul Colilli (image: Flying Inn Recordings)

Chester Whelks: I was predestined to be interested by your email: ‘Medieval and Renaissance literature and philosophy’. Wow! you said ‘each influences the other’ as regards the dichotomy of your working and creative life. In many respects it’s obvious, but please humour me. I’m very interested in the notion that contemporary culture is eating itself-up faster than at any other time in History. I originally put this down to people not knowing how to be original in the wake and under the pressure of a post-Millenial paradigm. How exactly does your experience of studying Medieval/Renaissance literature inform your visions of the future as illustrated on ‘Hieroglyphs of The Soul’?

Paul Colilli: To begin with, I see my academic teaching/writing and my music making as belonging to the same cognitive constellation (pardon the alliteration). There is a continuum that includes my (rationally) rigorous academic prose writing and my (irrationally) rigorous lyrical and musical inventions. So that, for example, the philosophical ideas I play with in my books/articles emerge as distilled images in my music. My lyrics owe much more to Giorgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin, Aby Warburg than they do to the Beatles, Velvets, etc. Now, specifically as far as the Medieval/Renaissance thing is concerned, my music expresses an anxiety and a dream that I found in the lit/phil and art of those ages. The anxiety is that of eternal damnation (Medieval) and the dream is that of the unrepeatable union of all of the arts (Renaissance); you know, the scientist who is also a painter a musician a poet a philosopher and so on. But today, the eternal damnation assumes a different guise, not so much wallowing in hell as being stuck in the eternal repetition of the same. So “the future being saturated with the past” provokes, in my mind, an anxiety about our inability to transcend ourselves. Not necessarily (or only) in spiritual terms but in terms of our capacity to do something that is radically, “unprecedentedly” and unrepeatably new. In the meanwhile the gathering together of all of the artistic forms of communication becomes a provisional form of solace.

Chester Whelks:
As I said, there’s a huge disparity between Simply Saucer and your solo material. Obviously, I’ve leapt nearly three decades between recordings, but your solo material is obviously redolent of a more Psychedelic time – there’s Beatlesesque Mellotron, deftly-crafted Emitt Rhodes-ish baroque pop, a reference to Syd Barrett(?) in the form of ‘What’s New Vegetable Man’, is this a deliberate conceit made for this particular album and the themes you’re exploring on ‘Hieroglyphs of the Soul’?

Paul Colilli:Although it might seem like it could be, it was never intended to be so. Actually, the title is a conflation of the Beatles’ “What’s the new Mary Jane” and Syd’s “Vegetable man”; and the track is essentially a lost letter to Syd. The track the sums up my efforts is the final one, “Hieroglyphs of the Soul”, with no singing/lyrics and which speaks to the perfection of verbal silence as opposed to the imperfect chatter of human words.

CW: What musicians are most inspiring/enduring/dear to you?

PC: It all started with the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys. But if it is a question of inspiration/influence I would say Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd, the Kinks (especially 1966-67-68), King Crimson (of 1969-1970) and the Velvet Underground. I am also a great admirer of people such as Frank Zappa and Brian Eno who, in different ways and means, cultivated the figure of the musician/philosopher.

CW: And are there any contemporary musicians you’re interested in?

PC: I listen to MGMT, the Raveonettes, Tame Impala and Brian Eno’s stuff. I am a seeking a new and satisfying fusion of uncompromising/savage ambient music with songs you can whistle to.

Interestingly, you made ‘The Soft Ethic’ the sort of ‘single’ from this album. It’s the most stripped down song from the collection, which is usually the opposite way anyone promoting an album would go. What made you lead with that?

PC: It best expresses the space that exists between joy and melancholy. The working title for the Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” was “Sometimes happy, sometimes sad.” Which is a motto for being human. It is the degree zero of being a man or a woman. So “The Soft Ethic” speaks to the melancholy caused by being stuck in eternal repetition, but it also speaks to a joyous renewal brought about discovering something new about the planet we inhabit.

CW: I’m just reading that your first solo material was released around 2011, can you (if you aren’t already tired of doing so) briefly fill in the background of the intervening years between your involvement with Simply Saucer, and your decision to start creating and releasing your own material?

PC: So I left the Saucer in 1973 just before they recorded the music that made them a cult phenomenon. I was involved in some other musical projects such as The NeuroAngels (with fellow Saucer founder David Byers) and as a solo act under the name of Orpheus in the Underground. As interesting as these projects were, nothing came of them and all of the demos that were recorded have been lost. I then abandoned music altogether. I decided to focus on my university studies obtaining a PhD in Medieval Italian literature at the University of Toronto. And ever since I have been a professor teaching at a Canadian university (Laurentian) and writing on a variety of topics, primarily Middle Ages and Renaissance. While my chosen career brought me great satisfaction, I became gradually more and more perturbed by the fact that I had cheated myself out of exploring something that was my first love, namely music. But I also came to the realization that the compartmentalization of disciplines (you’re either a philosopher or a poet, a scientist or a musician and so on) was one of the most arbitrary and damaging traditions put into place. I realized that music making, painting, academic prose writing, while different in modes of presentation and articulation, share the same psycho-physiological matrix, that of revealing oneself to the world and to others. A number of years had passed, but I decided to start playing and writing music again (and I still do the academic writing). The first result of my efforts was “Psycho Sacred Music” released in 2011, and now “Hieroglyphs of the Soul”. I have other things planned for the near future. Also, I have re-united with the other Saucer founders (Edgar Breau, David Byers and Kevin Christoff) to form a spin off band, Saucer73, and we have an album coming out this year (“Who can see the shadow of the sun?”).

Paul Colilli can be found on bandcampYouTubeTwitter

Chester Whelks

Chester Whelks

Chester Whelks is a peripheral figure on the fringes of existence. Predominantly bothering the local music scene of his native Manchester, England, he has a very finely attuned Justice-button, and knows how to call a spade a ‘Multi-Purpose Murder/Concealment Device’.

One Response to Joup Interviews: Paul Colilli: Canadian Doctorate, Musician and a Simply Saucer
  1. Shawn C Baker

    Shawn C Baker Reply

    I, like Chester, am now an overnight disciple. GREAT interview!!!

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