Before his novel Instrumental was published, most of us knew nothing about James Rhodes. And now we know more than we’d like to. Instrumental is both a courageous and painful book, an editorial phenomena thanks to which this classical music pianist with rockstar looks exorcised his inner demons, while also telling the world why classical music saved –literally– his life. After his recent visit to Barcelona’s Primera Persona Festival, where tickets to see him were sold out, Rhodes comes back to town to join the upcoming edition of Sónar. What you’ll find below is a short fragment of the interview we did in London for our issue 35, which has an extension of more than 10 pages in the magazine – possibly one of the most moving interviews we’ve published so far.
I know you tend to get up very early and have large amounts of coffee so, to start off, I would like to know when you got up this morning and how many litres of coffee you have got running through your blood at this point.
This morning I woke up around four and I thought I would go back to sleep but I didn not. But I am not drinking coffee at the moment. I have gone three months without caffeine now which is very unusual. The doctor said I should just ease off a bit and it’s weird when you are so used to being so tired. Actually, I think it’s slightly better for me mentally, because I get less stressed about things. I just don’t have the energy. I literally, physically don’t have enough energy to get really whined up. So things feel quite calm and I will probably go to sleep around ten tonight. That’s not too bad.
Have you listened to any music so far today? Or have you played any?
I have not played because my wrist is a bit sore. I think I overplayed the last few days so I am forcing myself to take a day off today. But I have listened to a lot of music. I have listened to some Scriabin and some Mozart and I have written a piece. Not a piece of music, an article for The Guardian, about your 20s. They are doing a whole feature about people in their 20s and I am nowhere near my 20s. It’s about what you would say to yourself looking back. So I wrote that. And yes, phone calls, caught up on emails, went for a walk. It has been a nice day so far.
That’s incredibly productive.
Yeah, it’s only eleven o’clock. Fucking hell. It’s weird, isn’t it?
Only a bit. Classical music has obviously played a huge role in your life. At age seven, you heard Busoni’s piano version of Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, Bach’s epic fifteen-minute testimony of his love for his previously deceased wife, for the first time and it put the traumata in your life into perspective. It amazes me that classical, out of all genres, could have this kind of impact onto such a young child.
Yeah, me too, looking back. It’s weird because I think if it were an adult, you would not question it. We know classical at times can have more depth and obviously it’s longer than pop or rap, you know? You have a fifteen-minute or a thirty-minute piece and it’s not defined by one key or one mood. Whereas a pop song will be upbeat or it will be a break up song. But classical goes through every single emotion. I think as far as an emotional reaction to music, classical has more depth to it. But to a child, especially to a young child, I guess it’s a bit weird. But I did not even question it. I did not sit there and think, “This is to put all my traumata into perspective”. I just sat there thinking, “Fucking hell, this is amazing”.
Did you have a general liking for music or art at that age?
Yes. I mean, of course I liked music. I know there was a gramophone player I liked. And Scott Joplin. And Top of the Pops, I used to love pop music as well. And then I heard this piece of classical music and it absolutely changed everything. But that’s what is amazing. Even today, thirty-three years later, it’s the same. It’s exactly the same. Every time I listen to it. You know, when you get high and you take heroin and you take speed or whatever, over time your tolerance grows and you need more and more. But imagine that every time you took just one line of something, it had the same effect it had at the beginning. It never gets old. It always works.
I believe when you were younger, one of the reasons classical music enabled you to experience this joy and a sense of freedom was that it seemed to belong to you. It was your thing, for no one else to know about. Fittingly, you mention in Instrumental that you feel ashamed for enjoying certain aspects of life unless they are hidden.
Yes, that’s a really good point. I guess there was so much bad stuff that was hidden, that I could not talk about, that it felt really lovely to have something that was good. And it was just for me, I did not have to share it with anyone. I did not have to explain it or justify it. It was just this thing that was there and it was so good.
The Chaconne was also the first song your close friend and manager Denis asked you to play for him when you first met. I know that whenever you felt anxiety from that point on, you just played the composition in your head, ultimately letting it “save your life”. How does a piece of music do that?
You know, when you see shrinks and they talk about how you have to find your safe place…? For me, it’s like that. And of course it’s not just that piece of music. It’s so many pieces of music that I play in my head all the time. I suppose it’s a bit like a safety blanket when things get too much or too overwhelming. There is a kind of inbuilt mechanism that I automatically go to. And I just find it very calming, very soothing and, also, it’s a great reminder that things are not as bad as they seem. You know, when you fall in love for the first time and then you have a bad day and you think of your girlfriend or your boyfriend – you look at their picture and you think, “Ah, it’s okay”? It’s the same with music.
I know exactly what you mean. I think that’s what music always was for you.
Fast forward a few years, after you had entered, escaped and re-entered a clinic for victims of sexual abuse, an old friend of yours hid the newly released iPod nano in a plastic bag inside a shampoo bottle he got you. The Bach composition on it got you more ecstatic than you had felt in thirty years.
It really did! It was much more effective than all the medication – also because it was played by Glenn Gould, whom I love. And also, because I thought I knew everything Glenn Gould had recorded but this was a new thing – which was even more of a treat! You know, when you think you know everything and suddenly, there is something new. It’s like suddenly seeing an episode of Friends or Frasier that you have never seen. It was really extraordinary.
Like finding a diamond in an ocean of shit.
That’s exactly it! And also, it was hidden and secret… Again, it was just me – it was through headphones. It was very intimate and it was like when I was seven. There was that same element that if something like this exists in the world, things are okay. They have to be.
The composition ultimately filled you with lasting hope and once and for all made you realize you need to pull through for the sake of your son. Do you think music’s immediacy, its direct appeal to our emotions, is its most powerful force?
I think so. E.M. Forster said, “music is the deepest of the arts and deep beneath the arts”. It goes underneath everything. It goes underneath words. If you play a piece of music to a thousand people, each one of those people will have different reaction, a different experience, different pictures and stories in their head. It just plugs straight in. There is no filter, you know? With words, you have to interpret. But with music, it’s just…
It’s just like you cannot help being touched. I remember when I lived back home and had a car. I would just drive around and listen to music.
The best thing!
Literally the best thing! Especially in Germany, where there is no speed limit and you can go really fast.
And you listen to music and, all of a sudden, it changes from an upbeat song to a sad one and with it, your emotions change.
Exactly. It changes your heart rate, it increases serotonin levels. It’s an extraordinary thing. So if you respond in a certain way to classical music, which is so multi-layered, with so many different time signatures and instruments and melodies and motives and key changes, it’s like a more intense high for me.
I tend to also believe that it’s about a universal experience everyone can relate to, at least to some extent. We can still connect to compositions from hundreds of years ago, and it’s just mind-blowing to know that there is something so eternal, it has outlived all threats of history and it will continue to do so. Hence, it has this powerful healing quality. Classical music takes you to a place from where your own issues seem much less threatening, less relevant. That’s quite something to rejoice.
Yes. I think if you put anything next to something that’s as extraordinary as that music, you are going to feel some sense of perspective and distraction. I mean, can you ever envision a world where music does not exist? I think it’s as necessary as oxygen and water to most of us. And we take it for granted so much.
If you want to read the full interview, you can buy METAL 35 at our online store.