Q&A with Vassilis Athanassiadis of Terrapin - explore the fields of folk rock, acid folk, psychedelia and beyond

"There was a time when we almost believed that music, or art in general, would be able to change the world – or, more correctly, to change humankind. Well, it definitely has played its part in many of the issues you mentioned, there have been positive steps, but this is not enough."

Vassilis Athanassiadis: Goes ... Further

Terrapin is a trio formed in 2013 in Athens, Greece, by Vassilis Athanassiadis, guitarist and singer of psych-rockers No Man’s Land, drummer George Tzivas and bassist George Papageorgiadis (also formerly of No Man’s Land). In 2017 they released their debut album “Sanctuary” via the label GOD (Garden Of Dreams), which gathered rave reviews for its atmosphere and inspired songwriting. George Papageorgiadis left soon after, and was replaced by Kostas Sidirokastritis, who, in addition to electric bass, contributes harmony vocals, keyboards and guitar. Since their formation, Terrapin have been playing shows incessantly, mainly around their home city. Their live sets are electrifying, the three members striving to capture the moment, transcend it and present their audience with something unique and timeless.                        (Photo: Vassilis Athanassiadis)

Terrapin’s sound has its roots in psychedelia-infused folk rock, incorporating prog and folk jazz elements, at times embracing free improvisation. But time-honoured songwriting remains the constant axis of their music. Their second album, titled “Zero Repercussions”, was released on Bandcamp in the summer of 2020. Since 5th September 2021 it is also available as a limited edition cd with two bonus hidden tracks.The album was recorded and mixed by Gustav Penka at Suono Studio, Athens GR, and mastered by Nick Townsend in Costa Mesa, California. The music & the lyrics were written by Vassilis Athanassiadis, except “(Prolonged Accusation) Mind Probe”, for which Sandra Dillon wrote the lyrics. The band's drummer George Tzivas is responsible for the artwork.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock, Folk and Psychedelic culture? What does "Space Folk" mean to you?

I would say that in all those years of writing, performing and listening to music, regardless of genre, the main thing I have learnt is that there is always a lot more to learn. As for “Space Folk”, I guess it is a term similar to “Acid Folk”: music that is influenced more or less equally by folk, psychedelic and progressive rock.

What musicians have continued to inspire you and your music?

If I were to make a list of all the musicians and artists who served as an inspiration for what I do, it would fill a whole book. But I would have to start with the non – musical influences, since the music came later, when I was about 13 or 14. I was lucky to be exposed to a lot of literature and art from a very young age – my mother was an amateur painter, my father wrote poems and short stories and made drawings in his free time. He was also a bookworm. My parents didn’t listen to a lot of music, as I said that came later, I discovered it outside my family. There was even a period when I gave them an education of sorts; for instance, at one point I helped my father get heavily into Pink Floyd, Dylan, The Moody Blues, and so on… anyway, I was born into all that stuff, growing up in close contact with art, poetry and literature, reading a lot and trying my hand on drawing before taking up the guitar…the reason I mention it is because all this was inevitably channelled into the music when the time came, when I discovered Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” and Neil Young’s “Harvest” for example, as well as bands like King Crimson, Magazine and Television…that was in the late 70’s, when I was in my formative teenage years. There was this great fight between rock and disco fans going on, and I liked both genres (and still do). I listened to both The Stranglers and The Bee Gees, which many of my peers found strange at the time, but I never cared for any division of genres or musical segregation. Also, I never subscribed to the notion that music, or art in general, is inherently revolutionary in the sense that it has to have a clear-cut political mission. Some of it does, of course, but most of it is a commodity, albeit a necessary, life-supporting one. It changes the world in a different way, its revolution is a quiet one, it is what it is. So, to answer your question at last, everything that has made an impact on me since the days I started listening to music – and before - continues to be an inspiration.

"I would say that in all those years of writing, performing and listening to music, regardless of genre, the main thing I have learnt is that there is always a lot more to learn. As for “Space Folk”, I guess it is a term similar to “Acid Folk”: music that is influenced more or less equally by folk, psychedelic and progressive rock." (Photo by Christos Sousounis / Terrapin jammin' on stage)

Where does your creative drive come from?

I don’t know, where does anybody’s creative drive come from? I think that it’s something that everyone has, more or less, it’s just a question of realizing it and nurturing it. And if that doesn’t happen during childhood, then the trapdoor closes and it’s usually very hard - if not impossible - to reopen it.  Unfortunately, we live in a society which quenches all creativity in children, who of course are the most creative human beings. The majority of educational systems are designed to produce cogs in the machine – I know it’s a cliché, but it’s still true – so, the only ones who can show you a path for this drive to follow when you’re young, are your family and your peers. And maybe, if you’re lucky, a teacher or two. That’s why am eternally grateful to my parents for the aforementioned reasons, as well as to my childhood friends with older siblings or cousins who introduced them to all those bands, so that they in turn could pass them over to me. And let’s not forget the other important nurturer in the times before the internet: the radio – another doorway to new, strange worlds which is now forever gone. Or changed beyond recognition.  

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started?

Being entirely self-taught, I have to say that for me any amount of growth happened slowly, after many trials and errors, over the passage of years. I would say that the most important change I can perceive – let’s say since we started the band No Man’s Land, in the mid to late 80s – is an increased awareness of the music. Back then, in my early twenties, everything was spontaneous, primal, semi-conscious even. For example, a song either worked or it didn’t. And if it didn’t, there wasn’t a lot you could do about it, you just left it behind and moved on. Now, in my fifties, to a great extent I know beforehand what is going to work and what isn’t, so the decisions are easier and faster to make. As in everything, you use your experience. That about sums it up: growth owes a lot to experience.

What has remained the same about your music-making process?

Well, first of all I still write mostly on acoustic guitar. The electric guitar and anything else usually comes later. Also, there are still those times (most of the times, really) when something, a melody, a chord progression, just comes out of the blue and all you have to do is capture it. Sometimes you need to work on it a little, sometimes it’s just there, fully formed. It’s really awe-inspiring. Where do the songs come from? Sure, from inside and from outside, but what is this marvellous process that causes them to be born? Another thing that has remained the same all these years is the way that the band you are blessed to work with incorporates, informs and subtly changes a song that you wrote. The dynamics of 3, 4 or more musicians playing together, shaping a song you present them with, is an amazing thing to behold. A good band is always greater than the sum of its parts.

"To try to be true to yourself and to your bandmates. To have confidence in the moment. To respect your band and your audience. To fight your hang-ups and ignore the hang-ups of others. To have compassion. To remember that learning never stops. To persevere." (Photo: Terrapin)

How do you describe and what characterize 'Terrapin' sound and songbook? What is the story behind band's name?

Tying in with the previous question, we half-jokingly use the term “spaced-out folk songs” to sort of give an idea as to what Terrapin is about – some folk, prog and psych elements, dreamy (but not too dreamy) lyrics, some (but not too much) introvertedness. Anyway, throughout our debut album “Sanctuary”, our sound is mainly acoustically-based, meaning that six - and twelve-string acoustic guitars take center stage (together with bass and drums of course, with some electric guitar and keyboards coming and going, plus a few choice instruments such as sitar, mandolin and cello appearing here and there. In live situations we are quite flexible, performing either as a duet, a trio, or with guest musicians, in electric or acoustic settings, depending on the venue and the mood. Along with our own songs we perform some “treated” cover versions as well, some of them quite extended and with improvised parts thrown in – jamming, if you like. The band’s name comes from a Syd Barrett song, as does my other band’s name, No Man’s Land. You might say that I have a slight Syd Barrett fixation.

How do you describe new album “Zero Repercussions” (2021) sound and songbook?

It’s an album that captures the sound of the band as it was then and as it continues to be. It’s quite different from our first album, “Sanctuary”. First and foremost, it’s a trio project, there are no guest musicians, just George Tzivas (drums & percussion), Kostas Sidirokastritis (bass, backing vocals & lots of other stuff) and myself. And we didn’t do a lot of overdubs. The overall sound, the way the band played and the way it was recorded and produced, has a live feel to it, which is what we were looking for. As for the songs themselves, I think they have some common threads running through them, all their differences notwithstanding. They may have been written at various times, but we had rehearsed them thoroughly on stage, since we had been playing them live for ages before going into the studio. So, they ended up forming a sort of concept – in terms of sound and interpretation, at least. Also, the first part of the album (side one of the vinyl which we hope will come out someday soon – for the time being it’s available on cd and download) has darker lyrics, whereas the songs in the second part are somewhat brighter and bouncier. That was also deliberate.

What has made you laugh and what touched you from new album's studio sessions?

“Zero Repercussions” was recorded during two weekends in the summer of 2019 and mixed a little later – before the pandemic. It went quickly and smoothly; we were in a studio in the centre of Athens and the general feeling was relaxed and easy. At one point, Gustav Penka, our engineer, had the idea of recording a thurible, a metal censer with chains used in church services, as a percussion instrument. That was a lot of fun. You can hear it in the first chorus of the song “Infinite Trajectories”. Another thing that stands out from those sessions are the lunch breaks. I believe that breaks are always the most important part of work, in a way. We went to a nearby souvlaki place called “Elvis” for souvlaki, fries and beers in the afternoon heat. Very invigorating. We also had some interesting philosophical conversations there, which unfortunately have since slipped into oblivion. I vaguely remember one about Onassis and the viewpoint of the totally rich. Then we returned to the studio to resume the session.

"Unfortunately, we live in a society which quenches all creativity in children, who of course are the most creative human beings. The majority of educational systems are designed to produce cogs in the machine – I know it’s a cliché, but it’s still true – so, the only ones who can show you a path for this drive to follow when you’re young, are your family and your peers. (Photo: Terrapin)

What do you hope people continue to take away from your music/songs? What do you think is key to a music life well lived?

Well, if someone listens to one of our songs and it makes them dream, I believe we have accomplished our mission. A good song takes you simultaneously inside and outside yourself. It’s different for everybody of course, but I hope whoever takes the time and listens to our music will take away from it something unique, something precious to them. As for a life well lived, I think the only thing you can do is to be true to yourself and continue to push on.

Why do you think that the Psychedelic Folk music continues to generate such a devoted following?

It seems that the genre of psychedelic folk, acid folk, or whatever one calls it, gives the listener an otherworldly sense, a nostalgia for something not actually experienced. Much of it also has to do with the era during which this genre, among others, first emerged – the mid to late sixties will always have a unique appeal, will always be regarded in an idealized way, and understandably so. It’s not exactly escapism – which I don’t believe to be actually that bad, by the way – but more of a sort of a short or to Talk Talk’s last two albums, or even to some new bands like Avocet, Shearwater or Loma, you can’t help being transported to another place – if you are predisposed to that sort of thing, that is.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

To try to be true to yourself and to your bandmates. To have confidence in the moment. To respect your band and your audience. To fight your hang-ups and ignore the hang-ups of others. To have compassion. To remember that learning never stops. To persevere.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Too many to count, so let me just mention a recent one: last spring we did a live presentation of the album, sharing the stage with all our musician friends who participated in the record. It was a great, exciting night, with everyone, on and offstage, perfectly attuned to what was going on. Sometimes it happens, and it’s like magic.

What touched (emotionally) you from G.O.D Records productions and mission?

It is my belief that most, if not all, independent labels in Greece do what they do primarily out of love for the music. They bring out lots of interesting things, new stuff as well as re-releases. G.O.D. Records is no exception to that, as witnessed by their catalogue.

"I don’t think I miss anything; I’m not really into nostalgia. Great music is always happening, you just have to look for it. I also believe that it will keep on happening, as long as mankind is still around." (Photo by Christos Sousounis / Vassilis Athanassiadis & Paul Karapiperis jammin' on stage)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

It would be nice if people – not only audiences, but musicians as well – once again started to define themselves by the music they love – if, in other words, music once again started playing a major part in more people’s lives.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I don’t think I miss anything; I’m not really into nostalgia. Great music is always happening, you just have to look for it. I also believe that it will keep on happening, as long as mankind is still around. As for future fears regarding music, I guess my biggest one is that the sad trend of people losing interest in music and treating it like a throwaway commodity will continue, with the result that the ones who are still passionate about it will become marginalised and eventually irrelevant.  

How has the Rock and Psychedelic counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

“Rock and Psychedelic counterculture” only existed at a particular point in time, and then it became a myth. For all of us who, being too young at the time, have virtually no firsthand experience of the late 1960s, this “counterculture” is a fantasy, a utopia, even though it exerts an influence on our lives and work. But it is similar to the influence of dreams: everyone has different interpretations, everyone attaches different meanings to them as far as their own reality is concerned. Dreams are necessary, but one should be careful not to become too lost in them.

What is the impact of music and Rock culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

That’s a good question. There was a time when we almost believed that music, or art in general, would be able to change the world – or, more correctly, to change humankind. Well, it definitely has played its part in many of the issues you mentioned, there have been positive steps, but this is not enough. Unfortunately, music, rock culture, art, all those things are not a revolution, and neither are they able to affect significant changes in humans - changes that must come from within. But, having said that, I am convinced that they can make us better people, that they can give us hope.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

So many possibilities… let’s see… maybe 1966-67, Swinging London, hang out for the day and then go and see Pink Floyd perform at the UFO club… or perhaps Century Sound Studios, New York, one of those three days in September and October 1968, when Van Morrison was recording “Astral Weeks”… so, how about making it three days?

(Terrapin jammin' on stage / Photo by Christos Sousounis)

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