The World and Elsewhere: An Interview with Jon Crosby
“Reality has a dark side,” offers Jon Crosby, giving a peak into his world — his reality — that he refers to as VAST. An acronym for Visual Audio Sensory Theater, the soundscape that is VAST represents Crosby’s personal quest for enlightenment, forgiveness, and sanctuary. Through songs that can come on as gentle as a kiss or as brutal as a fist, VAST captures moods and motifs ranging from the lush, provocative beauty of Enigma to the stark, pounding assault of Nine Inch Nails. “Here,” the records’ powerful introductory track, sets the stage for what’s to come, as Crosby announces “All I know is that I’m here/drifting somewhere in the vast/somewhere in eternity/and I never want to leave.” God, love, sex death, being, and nothingness, these are the subjects that entwine and separate in Crosby’s songs. As a conceptual whole, the record has an almost film-soundtrack quality, not dissimilar to the work of Raymond Watt’s one-man project, Pig. And in contrast to a work of self-destruction and rage, such as The Downward Spiral, VAST is a voyage of hope, up and out of what Crosby refers to in one song as a “Dirty Hole.”
Crosby was born in Los Angeles in July of 1976, spending the bulk of his youth in Northern California’s rural Humboldt and Sonoma Counties. When he speaks of his adolescent years, the story is a familiar one of a creative loner who felt he just did not fit in. “In high school I wasn’t around very much. I had really long hair and everybody there was a total red-neck, hick asshole.” Completing his education on a home study program, Crosby graduated early and proceeded to the more important matter of developing his music. “When I was about 16 or 17, I started doing VAST,” he says. His agenda was simply to make music and play shows, yet he had difficulty finding musicians interested in his original compositions. “Everybody wanted to do ska and punk, to get laid or whatever.” Crosby enlisted a bass player, bought a drum machine, and assumed the DIY ethic. “I was doing my thing, and basically that’s what it’s been like, just trying to get out there and play shows, doing my thing.” And what Jon Crosby does isn’t being done quite the same way by anyone else.
It’s difficult to distinguish what sounds on the album originate from computers and synthesizers, and where the instrumentation is organic.
You’re the first person to really mention that. What I’m most proud of [about] the record is that I use computers to work with completely organic sounds. There’s only two parts on the whole record that are electronic at all. I would sample something, but I always sampled real things, like a chain gang or Gregorian or Tibetan monks. I would sample myself a lot of times. For instance, I would take an acoustic guitar and tune every string to the same note. Then I would strum it, put it in the computer and have it play backwards. You can’t do [that] live, but in a sense, it’s completely organic because it’s not like there’s any synthesizer involved… you’re using electronics to make it exciting.
Did the record come out the way your expected or hoped it would?
Yeah, it was an ongoing process. We did it in a completely different way and it came out in a way that I am totally happy with. I played all the instruments other than [those in] the orchestra: there’s me, the producer, and some other people played drums. I would write the songs on acoustic guitar and piano, so they’re real songs with melodies and chord structures. Then we’d just mess around and try to find interesting arrangements. We tried a lot of different things. I feel like I have a lot left in me, still. I want to make another record right now [laughs], but I have to go and tour, but that will be fun too.
Tell me how you happened to get signed to Elektra?
It’s interesting… when I was 20 I’d been trying to do things and banging my head against the wall because it was hard to get out there. I didn’t have a van, I didn’t have a practice place, and I didn’t really have any equipment. I was going to sell my publishing for nothing, for peanuts, so I could get a van, but I needed to make a demo [first]. I worked on this demo forever and then, when it got out there, it caught on like wild fire. I was trying to get a cheap publishing deal to get things going, and then all of a sudden everybody heard it. There was this huge bidding war.
I really liked Elektra because I felt like the A&R man unconditionally “got it.” He just loved it and wanted to do it. I think they’re the only company that’s had a lot of [acts] that are accessible but, at the same time, creative. A lot of labels are either really out there or they’re completely pop. Elektra felt like a good home for me.
Your music is so beautiful but also very dark. What personal experiences influence your material?
I think the darkness that’s in the record is natural. It’s not forced or made up, it’s just what I see and feel. All my music is [based on] personal experiences or things that I really feel. I think you’d have to name a song and I could tell you where it comes from. There’s only two songs that are more cerebral: “Here” and “Three Doors” are more of an idea than a feeling. For lack of a better word, it’s a spiritual record. Visual Audio Sensory Theatre is the Universe and the world and VAST is an adjective for life. I’m calling the world a stage: I feel like we’re “in the VAST” and I’m singing about the meaning of life. I’m not really coming up with any answers, but I’m raising a lot of questions.
I think the one song that people would never really understand, unless they knew, is “The Nile’s Edge,” [which] is about me not having a father. I was raised by a single mother, [my parents] were divorced before I was born… and I didn’t have a stepfather around. In that song, The Nile’s Edge is symbolic for life, childhood, a lot of things… I have these feelings and emotions that I have to express and they just come out. I don’t really think about it. There isn’t one song that someone hasn’t come out and said it’s their favorite… that’s what’s cool about the record. I think it’s really important for people to interpret [the songs] the way that they want to.
“Three Doors” seems like the most obvious choice for a single release…
The label wants to put “Touched” out as a single.
That’s good, too.
I don’t know what to say, I like them all.
Well, there’s a couple of songs that are real Nine Inch Nails sounding. I’m sure you’ve gotten that comparison a lot already. Is Reznor an influence?
I don’t think of my music as sounding like Nine Inch Nails because, when you listen to his records and listen to mine, it’s not very similar. It’s just similar because he’s a solo artist and I sound more like him than [I do] Prince. Depeche Mode is probably my favorite band. I think my influences range from the Beatles, the Doors, U2, Nirvana, and Dead Can Dance. Trent Reznor’s a genius. I’m flattered when people say [the music] reminds them of [NIN] because he’s probably one of the only good people out there. I’m definitely not part of any industrial thing. I consider my music [to be] just its own thing.
You were saying earlier that this is a very spiritual record. I’d like to pursue that by asking if you were raised in the church or if you had a religious upbringing, and do you have a particular spiritual philosophy that you adhere to?
I wasn’t raised religious. When I was 17, my girlfriend was Hindu and she started opening my mind towards a spiritual world. I’ve always studied, as much as I could, philosophy, spirituality, and religion. Basically, I’d pretty much closed my mind to a lot of religion and Christianity. Then, a year and a half ago, I just started studying to keep an open mind and was pretty blown away. I feel like you’re bombarded with Jesus but no one really knows what it’s all about because no one really has taken the time out to study it.
I think VAST is about searching for the truth. I believe in good and evil and I believe Jesus was the Son of God, but I think people should just go with their heart, and do what they want to do.
When you were writing “Pretty When You Cry” did you have a particular bad relationship in mind?
Because it’s a very sadistic, cruel song which shows how manipulative and fucked up relationships can be.
It’s about how people hurt each other in relationships. No matter how good of a person you can be, a bad relationship can turn your whole thing around. What happened was, I was in a relationship with a girl [and] I remember, I went over to her apartment and I told her, ‘I just can’t be your friend anymore or talk to you, because you’re crazy and it has to end.’ Then I was driving away and six cop cars pulled up behind me with their guns out. It turns out she told the police I’d tried to smother her to death with a pillow. I got arrested for assault with deadly weapon… I thought I was going to be in jail for 15 years.
Is the song a revenge fantasy or something?
No, no, it was just about how the relationship got. We were just awful [to each other]. I would always try and say things to hurt her feelings and she did that to try and get back at me. The whole thing, sitting in a jail cell, showed me the darkness that I was in, and how bad it had gotten. What made it so awful was that I really loved her and she loved me, but I couldn’t be with her because she was actually mentally imbalanced. A lot of people say “All women are,” (Laughs) but she was clinically crazy. I didn’t know because I was so young. After that whole incident, I tried to forgive her… but [what she did] was just way over the line. After something like that happens, you’re not feeling that kind. It’s a harsh song, I guess.
What will live performances of the record be like?
Well, I have a band and we’re getting it all together. I talked to the lighting director and asked him “What do you think of this?” Most of the ideas we’re doing, he says, are things that have never been done before. So it’s gonna be really different, but exciting, I think. It’s kind of a secret, actually.
Have you caught wind of any pre-release buzz that’s circulating about VAST?
One thing cool happened. When I was mixing, finishing the record, I was watching MTV and Lars Ulrich was on. They were asking him what he was into, and he said VAST. I guess he had heard it through somebody at Elektra. I did not have any idea he was going to say that. It’s cool, you know, because I don’t tell Lars Ulrich what to say. I think Metallica is making 50% of Elektra’s money right now, so it’s not like they went “Hey Lars, if you don’t say this we’re going to stop promoting you.” It was just very, very cool, because I’m such a huge Metallica fan. I was the original Metallica kid. That was so validating.
Is there anything going on in popular music right now that you’re into?
I guess I shouldn’t say this, but I’m going to say it anyway. I think everything on the radio is total shit. I don’t listen to any of it, and I don’t even know anyone who listens to any of it. I’m into Siouxsie, the Cure, Dead Can Dance… I think Radiohead is okay… no pun intended. I’m into Goth music because it’s such an open style. Visually it’s not very open, it looks the same every time. But musically… you can do anything in Goth music and it can be accepted, if it’s done with passion.
I made the record because I had to. I wouldn’t be surprised if it sold 1,000 copies, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it sold 10 million, considering the way music is right now.
Visual Audio Sensory Theater was released on April 28.