These are the meanings of the symbols in the Kressin family crest, and also the foundation of Neon Legion, the rock band based around German-born composer and multi-instrumentalist Philip Kurt Kressin. In a music landscape where many artists are concerned with shiny veneers over artistic content, Kressin demands that his work stand for something. With Empire, the debut Neon Legion album, he seeks to honor the values of his forefathers while crafting a sound that brings together elements of rock, electronic, and classical music, honoring his own personal tradition.
The Neon Legion philosophy is shaped in large part by Kressin's roots, as a descendent of German knights. He sees it as part of his mission to reemphasize values derived from the knights' code of chivalry. To see that the band's outward image coalesces with its message, renowned artist Stefan Strumbel was recruited to design Empire's artwork, including the crest that adorns its cover. Strumbel's work employs dichotomous readings of modern-day and traditional German iconic imagery to create a surreal world that comments on man's retreating ideals. Kressin says he identifies with this because, like Strumbel, he wishes to "refer back to a time when Germany was known for its poets, its thinkers, its innovations in technology and culture".
Kressin received formal training at the exclusive art and music-oriented Frensham Heights School near London, where rock & roll is an accepted part of the curriculum. Here, he learned about Bach's harmonies and Handel's melodies, toured Europe as a member of the choir and orchestra, and rubbed elbows with the children of rock legends like Roger Waters and Brian May, often visiting the house where Led Zeppelin famously recorded “Stairway to Heaven”. After school, Kressin expanded his musical studies in London with attaining a Bachelor of Arts Degree in music at Brunel University. He specialized in composition and won the university´s Steve Thomas Memorial Prize during his second year at the University with his work Crusades, a melodic representation of medieval battle.
Upon finishing his formal education, Kressin returned to Germany, where he began two years of work at Black Solaris Studios, an old (and possibly haunted) WWII bunker in Frankfurt. Here, he produced a number of German hip-hop and electronic artists, and had his first foray into film composing with his classical score for the award-winning short film Geigensolo. The latter would prove to be a most intense experience: The film's director was partially deaf, and had previously rejected the work of twelve other composers. Because the director could not hear high-range melodies, Kressin found himself adding sub-bass frequencies, "so that deaf viewers could feel the bass in their bodies."
Amid his other work at Black Solaris, he found time to record his first album, Cyan (under the name Kirt). But soon after its completion, Kressin left Germany for the sunnier climes of Buenos Aires to release the disc. "I didn't see very much light in the bunker for a couple years," he says. "I just needed some light again." A two-year stay in Argentina yielded considerable critical praise and regional touring, as well as a group of musicians that would effectively form the first incarnation of Neon Legion. Kressin and friends would also co-found Multicorriente, a collective that functioned as his record label, and as publisher of a monthly cultural magazine.
When restlessness struck again, the artist set out for what are now his twin bases in North America: New York City and Toronto. "The move seemed like a logical step," he says. "I’ve always been nomadic, living in different places, establishing myself there as an artist, and then moving on to the next one, building a network of collaborators in that way." For Kressin, building a network means finding a new set of musicians in each of his adopted hometowns.
"I like to put together a different band in each city, everyone brings their own sound and cultural perspective to the global group that is Neon Legion.”
It took more than a dozen musicians in four countries on three continents to make Empire. After working out arrangements with his Argentinian group, Kressin enlisted Priestbird cellist Daniel Bensi in New York, as well as a large cast of Toronto musicians, referred to him by a mutual friend of Broken Social Scene's Jason Collett, including members of the experimental electronic group Holy Fu*k, The Hidden Cameras and Bahamas. Despite having so many hands on deck, the album maintains an organic feel uncommon in most synth-rock music. This is a result of having recorded primarily live, with Kressin putting aside his admitted "control freak" tendencies and trusting the instincts of his fellow musicians.
Mixed (and partially recorded) at Electric Lady Studios in New York, Empire bears the unmistakable sonic stamp of that legendary building's 40-year history. At the fore is Kressin's vulnerable tenor, a counterpoint to the often moody, driving rock underneath. After "fighting against the band" in live situations for some years, he decided to roll back his "rock" voice, thanks in part to a steady diet of the art-rock bands like the Flaming Lips and Blonde Redhead. He credits the latter's classical harmonies, with "an almost childlike male voice" as a particular inspiration for his vocal style on Empire. "Sometimes singing quietly is stronger.”
The album's ten songs delve into existential and sometimes political topics—the nature of man, intellect vs. instinct, man vs. the environment—from an omniscient perspective, in an effort to bring clarity and truth to humanity's larger patterns. "Hunt" tackles the Christian denial of the evolution of man ("The day that Christ christened his lies/The humans fell into the trap"). In "Time to Feed" Kressin laments the destruction of planet Earth ("It leaves in me a fear so deep, I can't breathe") before offering atonement ("Mother, I'll take care of you like no other son would"). It's no wonder that when he sings "Maybe we're all the same" in the song "Twin", it seems to be meant with a sense of resignation.
The heavy themes never get in the way of hooks. "Eyes" finely incorporates electronic elements into a pulsing, guitar-driven groove; the insistent synth-pop of "Wicked Men" harkens back to the masters of the craft, Depeche Mode. Like most great records, Empire gets plenty weird: "Pornoratorio" explodes with a cascade of tricky time signatures into a dramatic post-glam-rock chorus; the nearly eight-minute "La Revolucion" stomps ahead on an electronic pulse and foreboding synthesizer pattern, like an army of giant knights marching forward.
Neon Legion is Kressin's brotherhood, or knighthood; a means to unify the classical and traditional with the modern and futuristic. Empire is his mission statement, a plea for humanity to self-actualize and improve its standing in the universe. Yet he's keenly aware that revolution comes at a price. As Empire's title track expands into a chorus lush with strings and shoegazer guitars, Kressin envisions a post-revolutionary world where simple truths prevail: "We are the children of gold/We are the children of stone/We won't be falling from great heights/Anymore."
How do you describe your music to people, Philip?
Recently I started saying that Neon Legion sounds like Flash Gordon´s brain on acid. This is inspired by John O´Mahony, who said that "Twin" sounded like a mix between Flash Gordon and Franz Ferdinand, while mixing the song at Electric Lady Studios. I like that description. I think there is something to it. We try to marry different eras together. You could say that the music is retro-futuristic. A marriage between the classical or traditional and the futuristic. Neon Legion is a collaboration in every sense. We mix indie rock with electronic music on the basis of predominantly classical harmonic progressions. There are 15 contributors, who played on the debut album "Empire". Members of rock, electronic and experimental bands such as Bahamas, Holy Fuck and The Hidden Cameras. Neon Legion is a versatile blend but it definitely falls somewhere into the indie genre.
Tell me about how you originally got into your craft.
I was a huge music fan at a young age. My older brother would listen to bands like Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and David Bowie and I would listen to the records through the wall or he would play me songs. When I was 12, I owned my first record. It was "Thriller" by Michael Jackson. I loved it. I picked up the guitar soon after and started writing songs. It came natural to me. From then onwards I knew I wanted to write music and perform. Embarrassingly my first performances consisted of me singing and dancing Michael Jackson videos with one to one choreography to my parents and anybody else who wanted to have a laugh. Thank god camera phones and the internet did´nt exist yet or I would have probably been a "Youtube star". Probably would have ruined my career. I also can´t get over never having been able to figure out how to properly moonwalk. I had all the other moves down pretty well though.
What is your favorite thing to do in the whole wide world?
My favourite thing to do is experience things and dream up visions of the future. I do that for my personal and creative life. I visualize projects and see them become reality, despite how crazy the ideas sometimes are. In Argentina, for my solo record, I wanted to have a carriage that is being pulled by post apocalyptic punk girls as the cover photo. I activated all the resources I had to my disposal and two weeks later we did the shoot and it actually became real. I love that. I think everything is possible if you set your mind to it. Within limits of course. We all have to die someday.
What is your biggest challenge when it comes to running your business?
In today´s climate there are incredible possibilities for independent musicians who are serious about their art to succeed and make a living. The numbers in the music label model simply do not add up anymore. There is a middle class of musicians emerging due to the new distribution and promotion channels. It was always about making it huge or not at all. There are so many ways to target exactly your audience and play shows and sell your merch and so on independently. This also means that musicians have to develop all kinds of skills. Ideally a musician can write excellent songs and lyrics, know how to arrange and then record, mix and master the record, create or oversee the design elements and build and maintain a decent website, myspace and various other profiles etc. And then take care of the marketing and when there is a minute, create an amazing live experience, become a booking agent, book the tours and become their own tour manager, while being on the road. It is quite a lot to take on and eventually it will make being an artist impossible. The biggest challenge is to maintain the balance between creativity and pragmatism. They can cancel each other out at times. I like to concentrate on the creative side and not have to think about the business too much. There are people who are more competent and more passionate about business than I am. One of my goals in life is to not have to think about that portion very much, so I am building a team of talented people who tend to different tasks. Delegation makes a better, happier musician.
When you were a kid, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I had the idea of becoming some kind of guerrilla fighter/Zorro/Robin Hood and defend the rights of those who need their rights defended. I am still aiming at doing that in a certain sense. I make music, not only for music´s sake, but I want to make a social contribution through it and ideally give people an incentive to see things in a different way. Having said that, when you release a song, it is not yours anymore. The subjective emotions or thoughts that it evokes or the experiences it accompanies belongs to the listener alone. This was something to overcome, psychologically for me. I was a huge control freak at one point with my music. Thank god that is over. It´s like getting rid of a brain cramp. It´s just wrong.
In what way has your community impacted your development as a musician?
The places I have lived in have had a huge impact on my music. Not directly in terms of sound but on the topics that I like to address and the person that I have become.. Throughout the years I have lived in Germany, the UK, Argentina and the U.S.A. and traveled quite substantially all over the world. I grew up in an international school with kids from 49 different nations.Thanks to those most fortunate circumstances, I have identified some very fundamental human qualities for myself, which are independent of social or national context. At the end of the day, we are all tied to certain parameters and every human being falls into the spectrum somewhere. I believe in universal truths and they are a heavy theme in the music.
What other artists out there do you love?
Blonde Redhead, The Flaming Lips, Elliott Smith, Bear in Heaven, Klaxons, Arcade Fire, Caribou. These are examples in the indie world. In the electronic world I enjoy listening to Booka Shade and Justice at the moment. In the classical world my favourites are Brahms, Debussy, Stravinsky, early Arnold Schönberg. I am very open minded about genres. There is so much music around, its hard to get my head around it all. I try to minimize my music library to the bare essentials. Then I check out new things on online radio sites or based on recommendations by friends and extend my library when I really love something.
What does your future hold?
We are going to release our record "Empire" in January in conjunction with the unveiling of the album artwork, which is being designed by renowned urban artist Stefan Strumbel from Germany. He will come to New York and present his work here and we will play at the NP contemporary art gallery with interactive visuals, partly based on his designs. He is building a real three dimensional crest for Neon Legion. It will be a mixture between a medieval crest and urban art with neon colours. I like his notion of taking German iconic imagery and turning it into urban/pop art. It´s very exciting for us. After that I have several ideas for receiving funding for creating wonderful cinematic music videos with a serious budget. Music videos are an art in themselves,ideally, and I can´t wait to make them exist. We are aiming high. It is hard to say what their function is nowadays but to me they can exponentially enhance the effect of a song or they can ruin it. Its almost like making the film adaption of a book. At the same time we will concentrate on creating the best live experience possible at this stage. We are not afraid to rearrange songs quite radically and see what works best on the road.