A Heart Aglow With Blood & Fire: Ten Questions With Oli Spleen

A Heart Aglow With Blood & Fire: Ten Questions With Oli Spleen

01. Why did you start in this business we call show?

When I was three my mother used to bring me out at parties to recite poetry and music-hall routines which she’d made me memorise. One of these which I remember word for word to this day was a vaudeville routine called Pig and Drunk told from the perspective of an alcoholic, laying in the gutter with a pig. I didn’t understand the meaning behind the words I was saying at the time but the adults would laugh and I loved the attention.

Later with The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock on TV, I started to nurture a love of music and puppetry. I was always inventing songs in my head and would get only A’s in drama at school but I never thought I could be a musician.

By the time I was twenty, I was writing poetry and performing at open mic events and occasionally reading a poem to open for my friend Salena Godden who I had met in Hastings when I was seventeen. Back then she was performing under the name “Salena Saliva” and bringing her poetry into music. I had already chosen “Spleen” for my surname (actually Speer) when we met and we took our visceral monikers as a sign that we were kindred spirits. Salena was very encouraging of my writing from the start, though it was only after I was hospitalised with AIDS-defining illnesses aged twenty-two that I considered putting my poems to music.

My first band The Flesh Happening formed at the Brighton book launch of my novel Depravikazi which was published in 2003.

02. What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
I feel a spiritual connection with (mostly American) black culture, particularly from the female perspective. Maya Angelou’s writing has gotten me through some very hard times as has the music of Nina Simone. The works of people who have endured hardships resonate deeper with me than mainstream culture does.

The same could be said of Jewish writers, Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed being two favourites of mine. Reading up on Kabbalah (ancient Jewish theology) has also helped me through times of suffering, as has Buddhism on occasions.

I also feel a stronger affinity with the French “chanson” songwriting tradition than with most British music. Artists from this tradition such as Brel, Barbara and Aznavour have influenced how I aspire to write and perform; exposing my vulnerability and stripping back the layers of artifice so the performance can hopefully be a transformative, cathartic experience both for me and the audience.

03. What is your favourite swear word?
I think probably “cunt” for its crispness, though Salena uses “can’t” as a swear word in her poem “Can’t be Bovvered” which rails against apathy; a “total can’t” being the type of person who think aspiring to achieve anything worthwhile with their lives might be a bit too much effort.

04. What would have been the worst possible day for you to sleep through the alarm?
My dad’s funeral perhaps but I was staying at my sister’s the night before so she made sure I was up and we did him proud with a moving tribute. Also if I were getting a flight, but my anxiety over such things tends to wake me up before the alarm. I did have a relationship with a meth addict though, who would disappear when we had holidays and important events booked, it was a living nightmare but at least I got some songs out of the ordeal.

05. Presley or Costello?
I have respect for both of them though neither are in my top one hundred favourite artists. Costello for the songwriting and Presley for his dedication to showmanship, though I have more respect for many of the great (mostly black) artists who he took inspiration from.

06. What was the one gig (yours or someone else’s) that made time still for you?
The launch for my album Gaslight Illuminations with Birdeatsbaby was the highlight of my life and was shot in 3D VR so was the first time I got to experience being in the audience of my own show.

As for other people’s; some of the best performances I’ve witnessed included, Kate Bush, Iggy and The Stooges, Leonard Cohen and Daniel Johnston who was the rawest and most real performer I’ve ever seen.

07. What sound or noise do you love?
I’m planning to sample the birdsong in the woods at the bottom of my sister’s garden for my next project with Mishkin Fitzgerald. It’s a place where I feel most at peace.

08. It’s 3am. The promoter stole all the money. Two people turned up to the gig. Your name is spelled wrong on the poster. It’s raining. What makes you get up tomorrow and do it all over again?
The two people who turned up. I did a gig with my band Pink Narcissus in Brighton some years back where only two tickets were sold amongst all the bands who were playing that night, those tickets were bought by two girls who had travelled from Manchester just to see us. I performed our set just for them and showed them around Brighton afterwards.

09. Where do all the odd socks go?
I wish I knew. I have hundreds of odd socks.

10. What will it say on your tombstone?

I had a song called Bury Me Now which could be played at my funeral but I don’t think it’s a fitting epitaph, maybe a line from Furnace the last track on Gaslight Illuminations would be better; “A heart aglow with blood and fire” perhaps, or the last lines from Almost Young from the same album; “…We’re only here so briefly, as we satellite a sun, whose rays give light and life so we may learn to become young”.

You can find Oli Spleen here:

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