On a number of the tracks on Fantastic, there’s this amazing stringlike sound, deep and spooky, somewhere between a cello, a bowed guitar, and a water glass. Can you tell us a bit more about this “bowed device”?
It came about because I kept wanting to put cello parts on my composed material. I knew that Jimmy Page used to bow his guitar, so I figured what the hell, I’ll try that; I went out and bought a bow. I soon discovered how limited this was; with the bridge being flat there wasn’t much you could get out of it, and it was impossible to bow anything other than the high and low E strings separately. I was talking about this one day with Mark Olsen (friend, great musician, and he’d toured with Jean Luc Ponty as an equipment tech). He suggested something radical: put a curved bridge on a guitar so you could bow the strings individually, and cut the sides off so the body won’t get in the way. I said, why not? So we went and got my very first electric, which I’d bought at a JC Penny outlet for $49, took it back to his workshop, and did the deed. I insisted we leave the tailpiece with the whammy-bar on.
Now this all sounds very good until you realize that we weren’t thinking this through properly; you could bow individual strings all right, but you couldn’t fret anything or really use the neck in any way. The strings arced up, but the neck was still straight. When we realized this, we felt pretty damned stupid, and disheartened. But by this time I’d been using open tunings for a while, and decided to try that. This way I could at least bow a chord. I also discovered that harmonics and bowing worked just fine. So, while it certainly wasn’t a six-string electric cello, it wasn’t completely useless either. I ended up using it on Night Circus, the Paper Bag album A Land Without Fences, Darkland Express, and now on the Duets CD and finally Fantastic, where it got its most extensive use ever. That was one of the things I thought was really important to do on this album — the bowed device is so fragile that I wanted to make sure it got well represented before its demise.
On “The Deros Discover King Solomon’s Mines,” metallic poundings and rattlings, the aural artifacts of humans tunneling into the earth to plunder its mineral treasures, give way to distinctively interstellar-sounding throbbing electronic blips and clicks. Do these space sounds have anything to do with the Deros? Who are they? Do you think they really exist(ed)? And how does H. Rider Haggard’s late nineteenth century adventure novel King Solomon’s Mines fit into all this?
The title came after the music on this one, as it did on many of the tracks on Fantastic. It’s an all-percussion piece that goes from these metallic robot-like sounds to this very African-sounding percussion, and finally to what sounds like a temple bell high on a windy mountain plain. I finished this and thought, “what the hell can I call this?” My first idea was something like “percussion around the world!” — this sort of very early 20th century holdover from the 19th, about the wonders of exotic exploration. That motif kind of stuck around but just didn’t really fit the rest of the album well (although there is a real turn-of-the-last-century vibe to some of it, including the typeface, kind of art nouveau). Anyway I started working backwards from that — OK, there’s that “Wonders of darkest Africa!” vibe, and I thought, hmm… King Solomon’s Mines. You know, lost treasure/lost city and all that jazz. OK, but what about the robot sounds at the beginning? And I thought… mines… robots…. underground robots? Deros! Bingo, I had my title and a good laugh all at once. The Deros — short for “detrimental robots” — were part of “The Shaver mystery.” Richard Shaver was a fellow who believed that there were evil robots living in underground caverns, animated by the spirits of dead Lemurians. These deros caused all the world’s ills by the use of invisible rays that they aimed at people from their caverns. Do I think they really existed? No.
Oh, and as for why the Deros would discover King Solomon’s mines — they operate underground in a worldwide network, supposedly, so if anyone was likely to find a lost mine, it would be a subterranean race with superior technology! All that’s missing now is Fu Manchu. But if we can believe what our ears tell us in this piece, after discovering the mines in Africa, the evil deros emerged with their loot at a mountaintop monastery in mysterious Tibet. Can Fu be far away?
“Sahara 1909” is one of my favorite tracks on Fantastic, with its kettle-drum percussion, dark grumbling proggy guitars, and lighter treated guitars floating on currents of sometimes gale-force windsound. It feels like a seriously weird trip back in time, which is sort of signaled by its title, too. What happened in the Sahara in 1909? What are you trying to evoke with this track?
I had originally intended to do a track around the idea of Aleister Crowley’s trip to Bou Saada in 1909, during which he encountered the demon Choronzon, spirit of dispersion, while “scrying the aethers” — a method of obtaining visions of increasingly higher symbolic realms through the use of Enochian magick. But then I thought that maybe that was too specific and that I shouldn’t really tell people what to imagine. So even before I started recording I decided to come up with a few more scenarios around this desert motif, so that I would naturally produce a few more elements for people to work up their own interpretations from. I imagined various strange and terrible things happening to a military expedition. The Crowley story and the “expedition” motif were very present in my mind as I did the tracks. But the main things I tried to think about while I recorded were the time period, the location, and the feeling that something very intense and frightening and weird had happened. Ultimately I didn’t want to get more specific than that. That’s why it ended up being “Sahara 1909” and not “Bou Saada.” “Sahara” is more general and I think more evocative for a wider range of people.
The melody that’s whistled at the beginning just came out of me once the tape was rolling, and it felt almost like it came through me. I love moments like that, especially when they’re part of a recording.
The low throbs and jangling dark guitar of “Snallygaster” gives me a feeling of travel through dark dimensions. They also remind me in a warped way of the Doctor Who theme music. Is there any connection? What is a “snallygaster,” anyway?
No connection to the Dr. Who theme, although Grainer, Derbyshire, and Hodgson are all really big deals to me, I love their work. A lot of people know Grainer from Dr. Who and The Prisoner and other BBC shows. Hodgson and Derbyshire were part of the BBC Radio Workshop and also did things like the soundtrack for The Legend of Hellhouse, put out albums as Electrophon, and worked extensively on the first White Noise album. Great stuff.
As for the title, I first picked up the term “Snallygaster” from John Keel. (I think I have just about everything the guy ever wrote.) The official description is basically a nocturnal creature that’s half bird and half reptile, and it preys mostly on chickens, small livestock, and children. The name’s derived from “schnell geist,” which means “quick spirit.” It was spotted mostly around rural Maryland, early in the 20th century, but things like it have been reported elsewhere too, and for a long time. Keel actually used the term very generally to refer to any type of monster sighting, including big, hairy red-eyed creatures that give off bad odors — that’s a common type — and things like Mothman, flying creatures that are unidentifiable, things like that. There are usually dead livestock, animal mutilations, and disappearing pets occurring at the same time as these sightings. (I think it’s interesting that they toned down the content of Mothman Prophecies for the movie — the events reported in the book are actually much stranger, there are more of them, and most surprising of all for an adaptation, the body count in real life was actually higher. Great movie, though. Too subtle and genuine for the critics. Oh well.) This isn’t the first time I’ve named a song after a Keel reference. “Phantom Glass Smashers” off Darkland Express refers to something he covered.
And I suppose I should say something about the “Paradise” trilogy. With “Looking For Paradise,” I was partially going after a musical portrait of the “Shangri-La” idea, the place hidden from the world where life is a tranquil paradise. Shangri-La is fictional, of course, but Hilton almost certainly based it on the myth of Shambhala. But it’s not just the idea of the place itself that’s fascinating, it’s this image of searching the remote wastes of the world for it, devoting your life to it because the quest consumes you. The music for “Looking” is very ethereal, and if you had to lay any ethnicity on it, it’s difficult. Musically, the point is then made, this is not about anyplace in particular, but about something which, though it may seem familiar, is very much “other.” This takes the “paradise” concept out of anybody’s grasp or agenda and places it back floating in the ether where it belongs. “Sanctuary” is anyplace where you can get some quiet and find safety and peace. “Paradise is Where You Find It” brings us back to the beginning, to the idea of looking for it in the first place, and it has a kind of Zen koan feel to it, which I liked. My point with the title is, don’t have a rigid view of these things. Rigidity is a death characteristic. Rigidity is also characteristic of fanatics. This is not a coincidence. If you really want to find paradise, you’d better lighten up and start looking in the little moments around you, at what makes life good. It may be that our only paradise is right under our noses, and we’ve steadfastly ignored it. Paradise isn’t tomorrow. Paradise is now.
For fans of what used to be called “art rock,” and now more often goes by the name of “prog rock” or just “prog,” Fantastic will be a godsend, with bits that sound uncannily like pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, early Tangerine Dream, and early 1970s King Crimson blending perfectly with a hell of a lot of original thoughts straight out of your own head. In fact, on your Web site, you even go so far as to label Fantastic “art rock and proud of it.” Do you think prog’s time has come (back)? What does this decades-old genre have to offer new ears? What do you find most compelling about prog, and which prog bands/artists have influenced you most?
You certainly nailed most of the influences here, certainly the ones for this album. I’d add early Amon Duul II, who were very much in my mind here, and Hall of the Mountain Grill era Hawkwind. [Brian] Eno too, very much so. And Goblin. Part of what doing this album was about was releasing something that would give people the kind of experiences I got from listening to all those guys. My hat is eternally off to all of them.
Before I start talking about prog I think I’d better define it, or at least let you know how I’m looking at it. There’s a reason I went for the term “art rock” on the site, and not prog. Certainly the ideas are equivalent in a lot of ways. But art rock fits what I do much better. Externally this is true because that term can cover everything from Led Zeppelin to Tangerine Dream, and anyone who’s heard both my solo CDs can attest that’s about the width of my music’s stylistic range. Many definitions of prog frequently exclude both of those extremes. For me, if it has a sense of color and atmosphere, a willingness to incorporate a number of styles or take risks, or just has a certain strong or evocative feel to it, that’s what I like.
In a way I think not using the term “prog” is a shame, because people shy away from it for the wrong reasons, mainly not wanting to be associated with something they’re ashamed of. I’m not ashamed of it, I love that stuff. But saying I’m prog is as accurate as saying I’m hard rock or experimental — all true, on occasion. No one term tells the whole story. At least in terms of what fans from each genre seem to expect, and I have a responsibility to help people understand what I do before they buy so they don’t get something they really don’t like. Prog fans, space rock fans, psych fans, all of them can find substantial amounts of what I do to be in their taste range. I like a lot of different kinds of music and I am not interested in keeping them all away from each other in little hermetically sealed compartments. Not as a listener and certainly not as an artist. That’s why we have purists; that’s their part in the food chain. As for me, I’m here to shake things up and see what comes out.
My definition of prog seems to be very different from most peoples’. To me, its basis is synthesis; it can move in any direction. That was the birth of it and that’s the lifeblood of it. It can incorporate any type of music, is concerned with and influenced by art forms outside of music, and basically says, “the rules don’t apply when you’re trying to do something interesting.” Now if I thought most people would get that if I said I was prog, I’d drape the word over myself like a banner. It’s about an approach to music, not a particular compositional style. But most people think of prog as being about certain compositional methods and certain values. I’m not limited by those methods and my priority of values is different; what fans think prog is often has to do with things I don’t find absolutely important. Musicianship is important, good production is important, complexity has its place, but for me they are less important than the idea that you are creating something with vitality, that comes out of an inspired creative state. That’s art. And art doesn’t really require, as essential, the presence of those other elements. When you are in that state, your facade is down and your personality comes through your pretenses. What this also means is that your unconscious, the source of inspiration, bumps up through the surface like Nessie coming up for a photo. It’s rich and exciting. Personality or inventiveness are much more important to me than the technical aspects. I know people who can’t abide a glitched note or a lo-fi archival recording or simpler musical forms. I think they’re missing out on a lot.
Do I think prog’s time has come back? In a quiet sort of way, yes. People are becoming more interested in listening to it and in making it. Prog is the only musical form from the 1970s that hasn’t had a huge resurgence. The critical bashing it took was so damaging and so widespread that it’s really taken this long to recover from it. When this all went down I got the feeling of Orwell’s 1984, where the posters of “the enemy” are changed and everyone knows that not only is this the enemy, this has always been the enemy. And if you question it, you disappear. In this case, metaphorically, but no one will listen to you. The number of prog books published in the last few years shows that there is respect coming out of the closet and returning to the mainstream, and this in turn sparks new interest. A lot of the people on the rec.music.progressive newsgroup, and people running prog-based Web sites, are young, in their early 20s, some of them younger. (One guy that reviewed me was born two days after I wrote the lyrics for the song “Night Circus.” Sobering!) And they aren’t just listening to Dream Theater and Marillion, or Yes, Genesis, and ELP. They know a lot about the Italian bands, the French bands, the German bands. Some very obscure stuff. Prog is huge in the Netherlands; they may have as many active prog bands and labels as the rest of the world put together.
I honestly don’t know if prog will ever be really big again in the States the way it once was. I sort of doubt it. While that would be nice, I think the world has changed too much. But I do think it’s starting to get back some of the respect it always deserved, and I think new fans and new artists will continue to come to it. It’s certainly not a dead form. You never know what may happen. As far as what it’s got to offer new ears — well, something not heard in a while, and if they’re young enough, maybe not ever in their lives. The opportunity to hear music stretch boundaries in directions perhaps not heard before. The presence of something in their lives that is more concerned with art than commerce. These things are valuable.
Other influences than what’s mentioned above? You think this interview’s long now? Man, we’d be here all day. Most of the major prog bands/musicians, most of the hard rock/psych bands/musicians. Mahavishnu and fusion. A pretty wide spectrum of jazz. Modern classical avante-garde stuff. Lots of soundtrack composers. Lots of traditional world music. Some of the Chinese stuff I’ve been listening to lately has been knocking me on my ass, it’s so good. I could just keep going with this. Let’s quit here before we get into trouble.
A lot of your works seem to make references to science fiction themes, from monster movies to interdimensional travel. What science fiction works have influenced you most?
I almost don’t know where to start, I grew up immersed in science fiction, horror, and fantasy–films, mostly, books later. Poe and H.G. Wells were the first authors I read and collected; I was around eight. Lovecraft was a very big influence. Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit (“5 Million Years To Earth”) really got to me. That may have been the first film that made me think, hey, there might be something to this. Brave New World made me look at the world differently, especially the idea that those in authority had basically just bought off the people with artificial happiness, and conditioned them to accept nothing else. The TV show The Prisoner, which is one of the best satirical dissections of modern society anyone has ever done, influenced me tremendously. So did The Twilight Zone. The Outer Limits, too.
The beauty of science fiction is that it’s the perfect vehicle for metaphoric examination of society. That was Rod Serling’s whole reason for doing The Twilight Zone. There’s no taboo or issue that’s too hot to discuss. I think this is particularly important to formative minds. I know it was to mine. There’s a strong emphasis on individuality and nonconformity in a lot of this, particularly with Serling’s stuff and The Prisoner. These shows gave me guidance and ammunition. Plus, they’re mind expanding and they’re fun. Like comic books, people bag on science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but I think they’re very valid as art, and to the culture. With the movies in these genres, even the cheap ones often have a very high level of creativity going on.
Some people might think my interest in the paranormal and the metaphysical came from all this, but it really didn’t spring from fiction nearly as much is it came from real events that then required an explanation. Sometimes there was useful information in fiction, but more often than not it was purely entertainment.
Much of your music has a cinematic feel. A couple tracks on the Jugalbandi album The View Is Better from the Top of the Food Chain also had direct connections to movies — “Reciprocal Demonology” was inspired in part by the old horror film The Black Sleep, and “Castle Bravo” by the true story of American-made nuclear destruction that led to the making of the original Godzilla. Have any other films provided special inspiration for your music? Which ones?
Close Encounters [of the Third Kind] introduced me to the idea that music could be a form of communication with non-human forces. Phantom of the Paradise was directly responsible for a lot of things, including my choosing an SG for my first quality guitar, starting to sing (and from there writing lyrics), studying chord progressions, and attempting naive counterpoint. The original version of The Haunting influenced me; the use of sound in that movie is incredible. Again, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits — there are sounds and music in both of them that influenced me heavily, but in The Twilight Zone, the visuals did too. They really defined a certain type of dark aesthetic which became a permanent part of my vocabulary, which I’ve often made music and art around. Sorcerer, with the Tangerine Dream soundtrack; I own that film and watched it recently, in fact it was one of the catalysts for Fantastic. Suspiria, which was my introduction to Goblin — the use of music, color, lighting, and sets in that movie also worked its way into my head and made a little aesthetic compartment the way The Twilight Zone did.
Since my initial goal in life was to be a filmmaker, my entire approach to music has been influenced by that, and by other visual art. So, even though specific films have influenced me, it’s the techniques and forms and language of film in general that has influenced me the most. Long before I was playing an instrument I was using other people’s music to visualize scenes for movies I planned out in my head. The very fact that I’m project-oriented, rather than band-oriented, is like a filmmaker. But it’s also like a painter, who builds the canvas up until it’s done. That’s a good example of how I approach music.
I admire a guy like Robert Wise. He directed what are in my opinion two of the best science fiction and horror films of all time, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Haunting. He also did West Side Story and The Sound of Music! Which, whether you care for them or not, are widely acknowledged as classics. That’s an amazing range to cover and still be good.
In addition to your solo work, you also play with drummer Hyam Sosnow in a rock/jazz fusion duo named Jugalbandi (which just released three live to DAT CDs recorded over four days in April 2000 — The View Is Better from the Top of the Food Chain, The Cram and Stuff Method, and Yellow Star Mailing List). What other projects are you currently working on?
That’s about it at the moment. I’m mostly concentrating on promoting myself and Jugalbandi. I’m trying to put my next solo reissue together. It was originally supposed to be Experimental Guitar, but I think there won’t be an actual CD release of that. Instead what will probably be happening is that portions of it will be released in separate little bundles. It’s likely the next album will be just the 2/86 studio stuff from Experimental, including a surprise. But that’s not certain yet.
You were a founding member of the group Paper Bag, which recorded four albums of improvised music for SST in the 1980s. Much of Jugalbandi’s work is also improvisational (to various extents). Do you feel improvisation gives a musician more artistic freedom? Do you find it at all limiting?
That all depends on what form the improvisation takes. Paper Bag worked directly from a theory, a method, and that could be kind of restricting at times. The fact that we did nothing but improvised music was kind of limiting, because despite really loving improvisation I also love composed music, and all the shades in between. I don’t like to restrict my palette or my tools.
On the one hand improvisation is total freedom; on the other, if you care about what you’re doing, then a lot of the same criteria apply as with composed music. You must make conscious choices while you’re improvising to move the music along and make it work. It’s composition on demand, in process. Because I enjoy spontaneity I frequently find that less stressful than being expected to play something the same way over and over again. But since I’m also primarily a recording artist — I don’t play live much anymore, mostly for financial reasons — composition doesn’t have to be about playing something over and over again. It’s about using a recording medium like tape to create something on a blank aural canvas where nothing previously existed. Again, we’re back to the concept of music as art. For me, that’s a driving force.
In the liner notes to Always Look on the Dark Side of Life, you wrote that you have always believed that a musician should “make honest music first, and make your sales plans after.” I have a hell of a lot of respect for that ethic, but I know it can’t be easy to make a living playing the unique, often challenging music you do. Why not just join a rock band and make tons of money? How can artists remain true to their vision, but still make a decent living?
Don’t depend on the music for a living. Try to find a job that doesn’t drive you too crazy, live cheap, and finance your own releases. As far as the music itself, don’t compromise. Put your own stuff out and start by marketing it on the Internet; this stops all the bullshit from getting between the artist’s vision and the audience. Be realistic in your expectations–it’s not going to pay for itself for a while. If you’re promoting yourself properly, you are going to give away a lot more CDs than you sell when you’re starting. But at least when the money does come in, it’s yours — not ten cents for every dollar on every CD sold.
As for joining a rock band and making tons of money — well, not many of them actually do that, proportionally speaking. So then the question is, am I willing to devote a lot of energy — and money and time — to playing music that’s not really important to me in order to possibly make a living as a musician? The answer for me is clearly “no.” So I’m left with a choice: give up entirely, or do it myself and try to get people interested so that eventually I will be the one hiring a band, touring around, and making, if not lots of money, then a comfortable living. At this time I’m choosing to continue rather than quit. I have limitations; I work within them as best I can. But whatever happens, I will have made the music I wanted to make. Sure I’d like to be rich. But you have to have your priorities straight. By all means, make sales plans — just make them after. Because if you fuck up your music, you’ve really got nothing.
Any plans for a tour in support of Fantastic?
No, I’m not really in a position to do it right now. I am looking into possible solo guitar shows within the next year or two, and hopefully some Jugalbandi shows; the intent for both of those is to play some prog festivals. But there’s nothing definite planned yet.