Jan Schelhaas on outer space, the music industry and keeping perspective

A portrait of Jan Schelhaas
(Image: © Mark Latham)

Not content with keeping the Canterbury dream alive, Jan Schelhaas’ work on his new solo album has been keeping him extra busy. Living On A Little Blue Dot was inspired by legendary astronomer and author Carl Sagan’s 1994 tome Pale Blue Dot: A Vision Of The Human Future In Space. It includes a guest solo from Camel’s Andy Latimer and, Schelhass also hopes, a glimmer or two of hope for these troubled times we live in…

What drew you to Carl Sagan’s writings as a starting point for this record?

I recently re-read it, and with everything that’s going on, it really put things into perspective… but like Spinal Tap said, it’s a bit too much fucking perspective! Sagan talks about all the kings and emperors and how people are fighting over this and that, but at the end of the day we’re all just on this little speck! It’s crazy, really. Anyone looking at us, any aliens, would be thinking “Eh? What’s all the fuss about?” That’s what did it, reading that text. I’ll put that paragraph on the cover, “Consider again this little blue spot…” It’s a real shame Carl Sagan died so young, isn’t it?

You must have been a teenager when man walked on the moon for the first time, so were you always interested in outer space?

Oh yeah, of course. I was the little lad with the spacesuit, running around. I do remember, when we were in our first band in ’69, we stayed up all night to watch the astronauts walk on the moon, but we fell asleep just at the crucial moment! (laughs) I think it was some ridiculous time of the morning like 5am and we were propping our eyes open with matchsticks long before that. We ended up going, “Oh bloody hell, we missed it!”

Where does your solo work fit in to your work with Caravan? Was this an entirely separate project?

It’s a natural thing to do, to write stuff. I suppose it’s a bit of an addiction. You just have to do it. If you were doing it for money you’d be wasting your time! You have this incredible passion for it and you have to be torn away from the studio. The music’s there all the time. Everyone contributes bits in Caravan, because everyone knows what they want from Caravan. Sometimes what I do fits in, but if it doesn’t it has to go somewhere, so I work on it until it’s in a fit state for anybody else to hear it.

The album has a very dreamlike, atmospheric quality, almost redolent of The Blue Nile in places…

I think that’s just me. It’s the way I do it. I didn’t set out to impose any kind of mood on it. Most of the songs I wrote for the album are actually in the bin! It’s only the ones that clung for dear life to the album that made it. When vinyl was king, you couldn’t get much more than 20 minutes on one side of an album. It appears to me that 40 minutes is the optimum listening time for people. When I made Dark Ships, it was an hour, and I listened to it recently and thought, “It’s too long!” I had an incredible urge to get my razor blade out and start cutting songs out to make it stronger. If you’ve got really good songs, put them on another album.

Your old comrade Andy Latimer plays a beautiful solo on the new album. Presumably we don’t need to ask why you invited him to take part…

[Laughs] No, he’s a wonderful player. We actually spent quite a lot of time together, from 2008 for about five years, writing music. We did quite a bit of toing and froing, but for some reason we couldn’t seem to finish anything. We had loads of great bits! But we’ve done lots of playing together. Andy’s a lovely guy. His sound is instantly recognisable. It’s a melodic thing. I think that’s what we like about each other. He always used to say that I was a melodic player. He bases his style on looking for melody. You can hum his solos! I was very happy to have him on this album. We’re both always searching for that thing that makes the spine tingle.

There’s a sense of melancholy to this record… not surprising at the moment, but is there an element of hope in there too?

You don’t really have a choice, except to hope. Otherwise it’s just doom and gloom! So I don’t think we have a choice. I’m just trying to say, “Come on, guys! Let’s hope a bit!” We should at least try. Nobody wants to think about what’s going on, Donald Trump and all that, do they? [Laughs] I made the album with a sense of hope. You have to give it a go. If you were able to look at the planet from way out there in space, the further away you get, the less it means and that perspective is really important, I think. It’s almost like a picture of the galaxy with an arrow, saying ‘You Are Here’. It’s mind-blowing, really. I think it’s a very odd thing that humans have got this ability to comprehend the incomprehensible. Just being able to think about those things is a miracle in itself, isn’t it? Being able to contemplate the… what’s the word? [Long pause] Incontemplatable… it’s a new word!

You’ve financed the album through PledgeMusic. Things have changed quite a bit since your career began, haven’t they?

Yes, it’s almost the opposite of how it used to be. Back when I started, the record companies sponsored the tours and even though you were selling out arenas, you weren’t making a penny because there were so many people in the crew. It was a travelling circus, really. You lost money on that but the record company would make money on the albums, whereas today it’s the exact opposite. You put your CD out and then try to make some money doing gigs. But to answer the question, things have changed quite a bit. I kind of missed the punk thing altogether, I just bypassed that! People just didn’t like what we were doing, all of a sudden… and then eventually they started liking it again!

Living On A Little Blue Dot will be released in March 2017. See www.pledgemusic.com/projects/janschelhaas for more information.