Sophia London's Spitz - UK - 6 May 2007

Interview and article by Aline Giordano

Sophia in ConcertRobin Proper Sheppard, front man of Sophia, greets me with a "bonjour" when I reveal to him that Uzine was originally a French fanzine.

Robin smiles at me and appears genuinely touched when I tell him that the three instrumental songs on Technology won’t save us us are in my mind some of the most beautiful songs on the album. Still, it is an album which I had great difficultly getting into. Robin acknowledges this very respectfully. “To me Sophia’s music has never been immediate, and we’ve never been a hype band. It’s not the type of thing you can listen to the one time and think ‘Oh I absolutely love this’ or ‘I absolutely hate it’”.

“The people who really appreciate Sophia’s music are people who give music a little bit more time”, Robin adds. “Quite a few people have said that first they were not sure about it and then as time went on they said they thought it was the best Sophia record. And maybe that’s the thing that music needs to stand the test of time.”

It certainly is a grower, and now my second favourite Sophia album (number one being De Nachten!), but I very much enjoy listening to it, in a kind of silly way, back to front, starting with the more aggressive ‘Theme for the May Queen No. 3’ and ‘P.1/P.2 (Cherry Trees and Debt collectors)’. To me this album makes more sense back to front.

“If I had done that (changing the order of the songs), then I would have ended up with an entirely different audience. And I have a hard time dealing with the audience that I have now! With this record, because it’s been a bit more aggressive, the audience has really changed since the early Sophia, and I don’t like it. In a lot of ways we’re getting back to the kind of idiocy of heavy metal bands”.

Far from lacking respect to his audience, Robin probably feels hurt and frustrated that the people who come to his concerts so vehemently and conspicuously show that they clearly don’t understand his music by shouting that it is too slow! This, as Robin confides, breaks his heart. “Essentially they’re kind of meat heads… I hate to slag off my audience but the thing is when they force me to do things that I don’t feel comfortable with, then I’m not creating the art that I believe in, and people aren’t seeing me creating what I believe in”.

Robin has put so much of himself (not to mention his money) into building Sophia over the years to ensure it becomes this slow, atmospheric and melancholic entity, that it must indeed be more than disappointing to be faced with cretins who demand fast and furious music, devoid of feelings. If that’s what they want, they had better be looking somewhere else, because Robin is not going to give in to outside pressure. He has put into his music what he has in his heart and mind. Troubled and questioning minds have always produced prodigious arts, and Robin is no exception, may I dare to say, on both counts.

And yet, ‘Technology won’t save us’ reminds me of The God Machine’s music. I air this opinion with Robin, who acknowledges that others have dared to make the same comparison, but he is keen to voice his discontent. “I feel like I’ve come full circle around to how I felt at the end of The God Machine. People trying to dictate to me what I can do and what I can’t do and whenever that happens to me in my life, then it’s time for a change”.

The music of The God Machine takes me back to 1993, Scenes from the Second Storey: the music and voice of Robin Proper Sheppard had reached my heart and soul to stay there forever. The raw, distorted and aggressive sound of ‘Home’, ‘Ego’ and ‘She said’ hit me first. But, it is the emotions and subtleness of The God Machine’s majestic belligerent music that had a distinctive impact on my personal musical discovery journey. Away from the musical trenches, songs like ‘It’s all over’, ‘out’ and ’the piano song’ made me realise that Robin’s talent and willingness to explore his music and lyrics was reaching far beyond the typical industrial metal genre.

When preparing for the interview, I was not sure I would include any questions relating to The God Machine, not wanting to remind Robin of the tragic ending to the short lived band. But as the interview progresses he appears comfortable talking about it. So, while on the subject, I ask if he has had offers to reform The God Machine. Robin replies that the myth of The God Machine is actually much bigger than the reality. “It would not matter how much people would offer us to do it because The God Machine was never about anything like that anyway (i.e. cashing in for reforming). It was just three friends that grew up together and created this music together. When Jimmy passed away that was the end of it”.

It feels that friendship is what kept The God Machine together. “We would destroy that reality by getting another bass player. It’s not worth it. It causes more damage to the greater good than just going out doing a few shows so that people can hear the Tremolo Song live”.

Death is an important theme in Robin’s lyrics. ‘Lost (She Believed in Angels)’ for example is Robin’s most proud recent exemplar of writing about death. The song is actually about his mother passing away. Loneliness, self-loathing, hurt and love, to name but a few, are also recurring Sophia themes. The lexical fields in Robin’s lyrics such as darkness and light, inertia, the natural elements, affectivity and feelings are not in themselves original ones, but they wholly match the melancholic music that Robin writes and performs.

These themes remind me of moments in my own life. ‘So slow’ and ‘Ship in the sand’ particularly, I feel, are true accounts of some painful episodes of my past. Perhaps that’s why Sophia’s music has always struck a chord with me, but above all, it’s the emotional, genuine and introspective way in which Robin delivers his music live that puts Sophia above its peers. Take for example, the heart-sinking, sumptuous, and captivating Ship in the Sand, how does Robin manage to keep the same level of emotions and intensity now as the first day he wrote this song ?

“I don’t really remember where that song was written or how it was written, but I can listen to the whole entire thing and I can visualise what it’s about. You know the lyrics (I’ve got a lot of reasons, I’m glad to be alive…) that was about the fact that I had this wonderful daughter and there were all of those things in my life that were so good, but it still doesn’t change how you feel when you wake up and you’re alone. To me, it’s just so simple, I just express how I feel inside”.

So simple and yet words usually fail me to describe Sophia’s music to my friends. It is indeed very simple: Sophia’s music is the creation of a talented artist who dares to write honestly about what he sees and feels, to write about life, his life, even in its bleakest moments. “When I started Sophia I had forsaken everything that I had done before that point with an album that sounded like nothing I had ever done before, knowing I was going to alienate a lot of people, but knowing that it was something that I really felt, I related to on such a personal level”.

At the time that Sophia started, Robin was probably grieving his friend Jimmy who unexpectedly died of a cancerous brain tumour (thus marking the end of The God Machine), and certainly trying to come to terms with various other personal issues. And so was I, forever grieving and trying to come to terms with issues that had been buried a long time ago. Sophia’s music helped me throughout my bleakest moments. It also made me realise that beauty can rise from pain. Indeed, Sophia’s music is sheer beauty to my ears.

You have probably gathered by now that I am very fond of Sophia’s music, and I hope I’ve managed to capture what makes it so appealing and captivating. But how about Robin himself? Well, I shall make no secret about the fact that I am very fond of the man too! I find him to be charismatic, a bit of a rebel at heart and a genuine musical philanthropist. But above all, what I find captivating is his voice. It charms me, moves me and can bring tears to my eyes. Only a handful of other singers manage to achieve this.

I would also assume that Robin‘s character is complex. Whilst I shall make no attempt to go into the complexity of the man, it is fair to say that, for some reason, Robin appears to be a man difficult to approach. The image that Robin portrayed during the concerts I went to, was that of, I quote Robin himself, a “primadona” or even a “bastard”. There was a big furore about him walking off stage during one of his shows because of the way the audience was responding. “In some ways you feel like a temperamental little child, but you know on the other hand, the one thing that people can appreciate about my music is that whenever I’m playing, whenever I’m singing songs I’ve written, I’m always visualising what the song is about. I never, ever started singing a song and it’s just a song to me. I’m always thinking about where it comes from and if I lose that and I start to get preoccupied with the audience and their expectations, what they want as opposed to what I feel, then there’s no point in doing it”.

Self-belief and ego, that’s what Robin needed to take the radical shift to go from The God Machine to the slower Sophia. Self-belief and confidence are also two traits I would attribute to Robin as a person, on stage at least. On the ‘De Nachten’ live, he commands the crowd to sing happy birthday for his daughter, Hope, back at home, and during the ‘Don’t look back’ concert at the Barbican in October 2005, he casually plugs the new album of his friend Malcolm Middleton!

Yet, away from the perceived on-stage arrogance, Robin regularly talks about his insecurities when writing. “The hardest thing is to not edit myself. Like you sound like an idiot and people will think that you’re a girlie girl. That’s the hardest thing to me. Especially when, as a person, I don’t really have that really high self-esteem, I don’t have a lot of self-respect. It’s a kind of a constant battle!

A man with low self-esteem and a baby girl to protect, this reminds me very much of Kurt Cobain and Frances, or even Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon and his daughter Nico Blue. So, I put it to Robin that perhaps with the influence of depression, drugs and the feeling of inadequacy, fathers like Kurt Cobain and Shannon Hoon may not have been able to cope with the added responsibility of a baby, which could have contributed to their committing suicide… “My greatest fear is not being able to protect her. I didn‘t know Kurt Cobain and I didn’t know Shannon from Blind Melon. Everybody has their own ghosts so to speak. But if you really don’t feel you can cope with your own life, just the reality of the fact that somebody that you need to protect in this world is relying so much on you, could maybe be one of the factors in your inability to cope with things”.

Robin explains that Hope is one of the main reasons why he’s still here and talks about his fears. “One of the reasons why I need to stay here is because of the effect that it would have on Hope if for some reason something happened to me”. Hope is indeed a very important person in Robin’s life. She is always in his thoughts on tour, and when playing at home he occasionally brings her along to see daddy play.

Is it difficult to be a father and the front man of Sophia at the same time? “No, it’s actually not difficult at all. The only thing that makes it a little bit difficult is when I’m away. But this is what I’ve been doing since she was born. So she understands that I go away and I come back, go away and come back”. Robin takes great pride in talking about Hope, and recalls when she was two years old. She was in the bath and she asked her mother, “Where’s dad?”, and Julie (Hope’s mother) said, “Well daddy’s working”, and Hope turned round and said “Daddy makes music”, and Robin impersonates a little Hope proud of her daddy!

The supporting band The Ash and The Oak, is starting their set, it’s time to wrap up the interview. Robin has been more than generous with his time and words. I need to find one final question on my long list, and I mention the fact that Sophia is much much bigger in Europe than in England. “You know why I think it is?” He says. “I think that for one, in Europe, people first focus on the melodies of songs and the way that the melody and the music work together, and then if they want to get into something deeper then they listen to the words”.

He then explains how he believes that in the UK and America, people are probably quite put off by how direct his lyrics are, concluding that “the English in particular, and maybe the Americans to some extent, are not so open with their feelings. They don’t like to be confronted with that type of reality”.

“When I did the first Sophia record, Austin, the drummer of the God Machine said, you know Robin, there’s going to be a lot of people who won’t want to listen to this record because it’s telling them things about life and maybe about themselves that they just don’t want to listen to. That’s the risk and that’s the path that I took and I have to accept that”.

Robin certainly has strong opinions and believes in the quality, direction and integrity of his music. “I think that the early Sophia records will stand the test of time because of their emotional content and context of when they were written”. There is a clear dichotomy in the personality that Robin projects to his audience. On the one hand, he can appear over confident in front of his audience, but on the other hand, he will admit lacking self-esteem. I said before that I would not attempt to get into the complexity of the man and I’ve taken the liberty to allude to it. So I will stop here.

I’m glad that Robin took the risk and the path that led to Sophia because he has produced some of the finest songs I’ve ever listened to. Sophia is the musical genius of Bright Eyes, the depression of Malcolm Middleton and the raw emotions of Elliott Smith all encapsulated.

Robin: a primadona? I don’t think so! In the seventeen years that I’ve conducted interviews for Uzine, I have seen primadonas: those who ignore you and those who ask their managers to ignore you on their behalf. Then, away from the aspiring grumpy superstars there was a smiling and enthusiastic Robin Proper Sheppard who made time for me despite his busy schedule. I was able to have an engaging conversation with a man I found to be open, genuinely pleased to talk and keen to talk about his music, his past, his insecurities and his family.

Fourteen years ago, the sixth issue of Le Fanzine Uzine reviewed 'Scenes from the second storey'. My friend’s review talked about “melancholy dotted with rage”, “heights of sadness” and “sophisticated vocal nuances”. She concluded that "if The God Machine manages to communicate such emotions live, this experience could turn out to be traumatic”. I never got to see The God Machine live, nor did my friend. But having now seen Sophia several times, I can confidently say that Robin Proper Sheppard manages to convey such emotions during his concerts, and that the live experience, far from being traumatic, is singular, captivating and unforgettable: a real epiphany.

Visit… Sophia's website

Photograph © Aline Giordano 2007