Mention Prinzhorn Dance School to most people and the general reaction is a moment’s thoughtful hesitation, followed by a squint of recognition and a slow nod: “Oh them! Are they still doing stuff?” The short answer is yes.
Suzi Horn and Tobin Prinz released their eponymous debut LP in 2007 to as much praise as criticism, being both hailed as fascinatingly stark and avant garde, and mercilessly trashed, the pair being accused of not being musicians at all, among other abuse. “People telling us to go and die, stuff like that,” says Suzi. “Some of it was really personal – I didn’t go on the Internet for years because I didn’t want to see any of that horrible stuff.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) divided opinions, Prinzhorn toured their album around the UK and Europe, and in 2008 they headlined a stage at Offset Festival. Not long after that, however, the pair essentially vanished, no gigs, no releases. For all anyone knew, they’d disbanded, but no. In reality, Prinzhorn Dance School never stopped “doing stuff”, even if they did drop off the proverbial radar for the better part of four years. Now, as suddenly as they vanished, they’re back, and with a new record, ‘Clay Class’, which among other things, boasts hitherto unheard-of components, like choruses and melodies. So, obviously, the burning question here is what on earth have Prinz and Horn been up to in their lengthy absence. Well, er, that’s the thing…
“I built a studio,” says Tobin. “It’s an unusual space, perhaps not how everyone would expect a recording studio to look.” Their press release mentions quite a lot of red paint and adhesive tape. “And then we started making the new album, so, yeah… I guess there’s been a bit of a gap.” This is a pretty sizeable gap we’re talking about, surely? “Only if you’re on the outside,” he explains, “to me there’s no gap.” Tobin says that currently, people expect an album every eighteen months to two years, but he doesn’t work that way, he takes things slowly, painstakingly so. “Perhaps it’ll be another five years before the next one.”
“You’ve got to have a bit of time to think about things you’ve done,” says Suzi, “to process and take it in, otherwise you’ll just end up making the record you made before.” She describes the process of record making, with each aspect taking months at a time to develop; six months to come up with a concept, another six months to reflect on that, then there’s themes, making lists of words, discussing those words, “a lot of toing and froing”, as Suzi puts it. “We’ve been writing this album since we finished the last one, it’s just since November, last year, that we started recording it,”
All that, the pair describes now, was, in fact, the silver lining of the past four years, because though they were technically working, there was no money coming in. Putting the studio together and discussing, planning, developing, and reworking their new songs, as well as the album as a whole, was essentially a full time job for them both, and there was only so much cash in the bank left over from their first record. Eventually, Prinzhorn Dance School’s money ran out, and at one point Suzi was reduced to stealing vegetables just so the two of them could eat. (This, perhaps, goes some way to explaining the speedy succession of releases from bands nowadays). And after all the work and scrounging for so long, surely the band has high hopes for the new album, or there must at least be a certain degree of anticipation between them about how it will be received. Tobin makes it quite clear that he’s not interested in what the public, fans, critics, or otherwise think of the band’s music – that is to say he makes the music he wants to, and all the negative feedback in the world, of which the previous LP received its fair share, won’t stop him or change the way he works, but Suzi has a different take on the impending release of ‘Clay Class’.
“As much as I hope that people are looking forward to the new record, and are excited that we’ve made a new album, I hope that some of the people who hated the last one will like this one and be converted,” she says. “At the same time though, I think, ‘fuck em’.” Suzi’s theory is that a lot of the negativity and somewhat sparse press attention could be attributed to people’s fear of what Prinzhorn were doing, or, similarly, a lack of understanding. During some of their support slots, they would manage to literally drive people from the room with their set, usually after having a bit of abuse hurled at them first. “The tour with LCD Soundsystem was…,” Tobin begins.
“Tough,” Suzi finishes. The pair of them fall silent. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you, what were you saying?” she asks apologetically,”
“Nothing. I was finished,” Tobin retorts blankly.
“No, no,” Suzi insists, “you were saying something, then I interrupted by saying ‘tough’.”
“Tough,” says Tobin.
“That’s just one word, whereas you were saying a whole sentence,” says Suzi.
“Tough,” Tobin repeats. “That’s probably the best way to describe it.”
LCD had distributed little flags amongst the audience, to be waved in support during their set; the crowd decided they would be better used to express their feelings for Prinzhorn Dance School, specifically as little pointy missiles to be aimed at the band members’ heads. “Tough” begins to sound like quite the understatement, but on the up side, at a later gig, a few fans approached the pair, not only apologising for the behaviour of their home town but complementing them on their set, saying they had gone along specifically to see Prinzhorn and hadn’t even stuck around for LCD Soundsystem. “There’s that balance,” says Suzi. “I like that we can excite people and really piss them off.”
“We learned a lot doing those support shows,” says Tobin, “playing all those Academies. It was interesting because they’re big venues, aren’t they, and the way our sound works, it’s quite different to the small, more intimate rooms we were used to – a different dynamic.”
“If you think about how much space there is within our music, if you’re listening in a small venue, you can still feel the warmth of the note that’s just been played,” Suzi explains, “but if you’re in one of these massive venues you’re left with that emptiness and it can be quite intimidating to people.” The intimidation, Suzi says, occurs when the listener has space to think; if he likes, he can suspend in his imagination the note that’s dropped off, or add something else to fill the silence. In a huge hall, surrounded by hundreds of other silent listeners, that could be quite an intense experience. Tobin’s take on it is more from the performance point of view. “It’s quite soul destroying, playing those big venues,” he says. “The sound is usually crap, and you look out and see all those little heads… and the big gap.” This they say in unison, clearly one of the few things they categorically agree on. They mean the security gap, which puts not only an unnecessary rift between the musicians and their audience, but a row of grumpy bouncers as well – not exactly ideal, considering how deeply personal they say that first album was. “The new album, though,” says Suzi, “I’m not saying we’re a ‘stadium band’, because we’re not, but the new album has a bit more colour to it, and while there’s still that vast, glorious space, it’s… it’s not filled, but it’s… warmer. Does that make any sense? I’ve never said that before.”
Both confess that they find it difficult to describe their music, but Suzi tries again.
“All the shapes, when they fit together, and they leave those nice spaces within themselves, everything kind of rubbing up nicely against each other,” she says, “it feels more comfortable than the first record.”
“It doesn’t to me,” Tobin interjects.
“It does to me,” says Suzi.
“That’s the last thing I would describe it as, but…” he trails off.
“How would you describe it?” Suzi encourages. After a beat, Tobin replies with, “I wouldn’t.”
“How does it make you feel?” Suzi tries again, but he simply shrugs, and after a moment they seem to come to a sort of silent, uncomfortable truce.
It’s quite disconcerting to see Suzi lost for words – it also feels contagious… What were we talking about again? The new album! Suzi picks up the thread, by way of explanation. “What it is, is I look at music as colours and shapes where as you,” she turns to Tobin, “you tend to look at it in a very different way. Everyone’s got their own language.” She describes the specific experience of putting on headphones, “sitting inside the music”, and wanting to make this new record more inclusive of the listener. “On the first album, you can leap in if you want to, but you don’t have to, but this record, I want it to pull you in, if that makes any more sense?”
Unsurprisingly, Prinz and Horn came into music – and into the band – from completely different angles. Tobin says he’s always played music. “I can’t read music,” he says, “but I had a guitar when I was seventeen or eighteen and I always played that until recently when I started to play the drums, and I think it was at that point that everything changed, and instead of trying to hang songs on this incessant rhythmic guitar thing, it became a relationship with the bass and drums.” Suzi, on the other hand, had never been involved with music, apart from working behind the bar at gigs. It was when she met Tobin that she started to learn to play the bass. “I always really liked the bass,” she says. “It’s the part you dance to, and he just handed me a bass, sat down at the drums and told me to have a go.” Thus, the stark, postmodernist style of Prinzhorn Dance School was born.
The duo named their band after Dr Hans Prinzhorn, a psychiatrist who collected artwork made by his mental patients (fun fact: one of said artworks was called the Vivian Girls) and something about their peculiar choice of namesake seems to tie neatly in with the pair’s unusual relationship. “We’re very similar but also very, very different and we fight a lot,” explains Suzi, “so it takes a long time to do anything, not just because of the fighting, but it doesn’t help. I mean, we’ll bicker over the sound of a snare drum for three days just because we’re both so stubborn.”
“Collaboration,” offers Tobin. Indeed, a kind of collaboration that makes the writing of an LP take roughly four years. One wonders if the pair’s bickering is just taking up a chunk of that time, or whether it’s an integral part of their creative process.
“Why do you raise that?” Tobin asks.
The bickering? Well, for a start, Suzi mentioned it first, and also they’ve been doing it on and off ever since we sat down.
“I just wouldn’t use that word for it,” he says.
“I said ‘bickering’,” Suzi confirms. “But it’s important to work with someone who can see the other side of you, who shows you it exists, but you can still be friends at the end of the day.” She looks at Tobin. “It’s a very honest relationship, and also very loving.” That’s not to say that Prinz and Horn are about to agree on everything, though, or approach anything from remotely the same angle, even their own music. “We work hard to have one voice that comes from two people,” says Suzi, “but I wouldn’t do this with anybody else.”
“Conflict in a collaboration can be overplayed,” says Tobin. “It’s an easy angle, isn’t it,” (unlike, say, subtly implying that journalists are lazy), “but if you’re both passionate about something you’re going to lock horns, aren’t you?” Of course, and what’s different about him and Suzi “conflicting” and, say, watching a couple of band mates have a diva competition – sometimes known as ‘creative differences’ – is that it’s the creative aspect that these two have in common, and talking to them is like talking to mismatched halves of the same person, the yin and yang that is Prinzhorn Dance School. With that in mind, imagine splitting yourself in two and trying to write a record together – and doing it in under four years. Exactly.