Prinzhorn Dance School are master distillers – filtering songs to their core components, cutting out unnecessary noise, embracing minimalism.
Their sound revolves around the central elements of bass, guitar, drums and vocals, which they push to their limits with the simple ease of untrained musicians.
The results are an austere, timeless take on the post-punk blueprint that ripples through space and tickles your eardrums with a bassy hum.
Together, Suzi Horn and Tobin Prinz are as content to explore the silences between their sounds as the music itself, offering a sonic breath of fresh air and the perfect antidote to that ubiquitous jangly guitar band sound.
Having signed to James Murphy’s DFA label back in 2006, they have produced two critically acclaimed albums, toured the world, and created a dapper line in hand-stitched bags and homemade screen prints.
Now preparing to release their third studio album, Home Economics, we thought it was high time to pick their brains about their music, their ideas and their experimental nature…
** Prinzhorn Dance School are headlining our Independent Venue Week gig at Sebright Arms, London, on 28 January. Although all tickets have now been allocated, we’ll be offering a one-in, one-out policy on the door for those without tickets who fancy trying their luck **
What first got you into making music?
TP: I grew up with music. When I was tiny, I’d be crawling around to my dad’s reggae, Ivor Cutlor and Captain Beefheart records. When I was in my teens I picked up a guitar and started making noises on it. Nobody formally taught me about music. Nobody ever has. I learnt about music listening to John Peel shows on the radio. Buying records. Playing gigs. Sitting in shitty rented vans and posh tour buses. Playing on stages. Falling over in hotel bars. Listening to a special song in the early hours – keeping me strong, alive.
Sooz and I started Prinzhorn Dance School by mistake. We started bashing a snare and a kick drum. Some bass guitar. It felt very special. A breath of fresh air. No clutter. So we did it some more.
SH: I never had any real musical input when I was young until I discovered nightclubs and Andy Weatherall at 13. And then my sister used to take me to gigs.
When I was old enough I started working at The Monarch on Chalk Farm Road, which later became The Barfly, and I saw lots of bands. The owner was really good and organised it so all the staff could see their band of choice even if it was just a few songs. I never thought I’d make my own music – I just facilitated for others and enjoyed being involved.
When I came to Brighton I began working with a video production company (Nothing To See Here) and that got me interested in another side of music. I met Tobin and accidentally found myself with a bass guitar in my hands.
You’re now on to album number three – how has your sound evolved since your first LP?
TP: There has been an evolution, definitely. Adding colour to the monochrome. Adding emotion to the observation. It’s not a conscious development. We just record the things we feel.
SH: I definitely have, so the music has. My excitement about sound hasn’t changed at all, but the need and want to expand our musical palette is natural. When this all began, I had only just picked up an instrument for the first time. Since then I have developed both my playing and recording skills. This growth has hopefully made it through into the music.
What’s the inspiration behind the new songs?
SH: For me it’s about the space I’m in when I’m making the songs. And mentally I was definitely in a totally different headspace from when we made [second album] Clay Class.
Your music is always really lean and tempered – is that out of necessity because you are a duo, or is it conscious aesthetic thing?
TP: We often perform live as a three-piece. But regardless of how many people are on the stage, it’s important to us that we are a band. No tapes. No trickery. That’s the beauty of live performance for me. People interacting on a stage. Anything can go wrong. But anything can go beautifully right too. We write songs with the instruments available to us. The songs come first. The presentation of the content of each song is all that matters.
Is the band an experiment? If so…..what is the conclusion?
TP: No. We express the things we see and feel. We play the beats and notes that excite or move us. I think people sometimes mistake this for an experiment or an art project because a lot of music today is formulaic. It’s governed by business. By cash. So anything even slightly different sticks out. I don’t give a fuck about the music business machine. I just want to be excited by sound. Music is music is music.
SH: Isn’t everything just an experiment? I know what we do is definitely real and I don’t think there will ever be a conclusion.
Your music seems as much about the gaps between the sounds as it is about the sounds themselves – would you agree?
TP: We are interested in the dynamic within our music. Silence is our starting point and we add parts. If something isn’t working we strip it back and begin again. There’s no point adding a ton of overdubs to disguise a crap song. Build a wonky wall and plaster it over. It’s still wonky. With plaster on it.
SH: Space is an instrument in itself. People may think of space as a gap, or feel there is something missing, but for me it emphasises the other sounds – as well as giving them room to be heard.
Do you sometimes reject songs because they don’t fit the PDS template, or do they always end up sounding like you?
TP: No. But we do reject songs that aren’t good enough. We reject songs that we don’t like. We reject songs that don’t give us a buzz when we are playing them or listening back to them.
SH: It’s so important to be able to throw stuff away. If we didn’t we would have hundreds of shit songs. I know I’m totally happy with each and every song we’ve ever released and I’m so happy we are ruthless and brave enough to sort the wheat from the chaff.
What do you most like writing lyrics about?
TP: The things I can’t express any other way other than in a song.
You make all your music in your own studio – what’s it like in there?
TP: It’s a little sanctuary. A beautiful red cube.
You can see it here:
And here it is in a former life:
But on this record we hardly worked there at all. We really wanted to capture those beautiful ‘first takes’ you only usually get in early demos. Captured in various rooms and houses and homes. Almost like field recordings. We didn’t want to make demos and then try to recreate the subtle nuances and emotions of each take. It was a big step for us – we needed to develop location recording kit and get used to recording outside of the red shed and in different spaces/environments. I’m really glad we did because we have so many new tones and colours on this record that we wouldn’t have achieved any other way.
And I enjoyed wheeling our special recording kit from town to town, house to house, on a funny old trolley, gaffer-taped up inside a sleeping bag.
SH: I’ve been working more and more from home on this record. I didn’t have the energy to be in the solitude of the red shed. I needed to be in a warm, light environment so we recorded my parts in all different spaces. It was so nice to be able to make music anywhere and be comfortable. I even had my cats with me when I did my vocals. Sounds crazy cat lady and not so rock and roll but it was a really nice thing.
Is there a piece of kit you couldn’t do without?
TP: My new garlic crusher that Sooz gave me for Christmas. My ears.
SH: Dermalogica and CRAP sunglasses.
You make your own videos, album art, screen prints, bags and other bits. Are you precious about your public image? Or is Prinzhorn Dance School an enterprising cottage industry?
TP: We have complete control over our music and artwork for each release. So it’s not about creating a cottage industry – it’s just that we want each record to sound and look a certain way, to be perfect. I feel extremely lucky to be working with DFA because they share our vision completely and they love and care about every single aspect of making and releasing music. But in this industry they are one of the exceptions. If you care deeply about something, do it yourself.
How has your relationship with DFA changed over the years? Does it feel like you are part of a wider community of musicians?
TP: I’ve loved being a part of DFA from day one. That funny little hand-drawn lightening flash logo has transported me from signing-on in Lake Road Jobcentre, Portsmouth, to mixing records in New York and experiencing the world the best way you can – in a touring band.
SH: I feel so lucky we found DFA. I’ve been lucky to have found a family in NYC and I frickin love it there! Everyone is great. The girls of DFA – like Delia and Nancy – are super and I feel honoured to share a label with such amazing women.
I love being in the office and I feel at home as soon as I get greeted by Stevie at the door. I have my own workspace on the balcony! Jg and Kris are both phenomenal. They’re another duo doing everything. Like us they do as much as they can for every one of their releases so it’s done super well. They have pride and love in what they do which makes this all the most amazing thing to be part of.
Which artists and producers have influenced you along the way?
TP: I’ve met and worked with lots of the producers whose sound and methodology I admired growing up: Steve Albini, Bob Weston, James Murphy, John Leckie, Gordon Raphael. I’ve picked their brains and borrowed some knowledge. I feel there is a kind of lineage there. How to record beautiful, uncontrived sound. But it’s not a secret to be guarded. I’m happy to pass on the knowledge too.
SH: I never touched any type of recording equipment until we started working on our first album. I learnt from scratch through experimentation. I’d never thought of how music was constructed before so it’s still a great adventure for me. I can record anything anywhere now and have so many interchangeable skills, built up over the years. Tobin is an inspiration. He helped me to understand that although it’s a science, it’s not hard techy stuff and doesn’t need to be confusing. I’m confident with so many things that 10 years ago I wouldn’t have even touched for fear of breaking.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
TP: Something outside. In the fresh air. In the light. I’ve spent way too much time in dark rooms.
SH: I’ve no idea. I do so much as well as music. I like to keep myself busy and I work within my community. I like to think I would always be doing something useful and helping someone.