Deniz Tek is best known as the guitarist and primary songwriter from pioneering, influential and rule-breaking Australian rock n roll band Radio Birdman. He’s packed a lot into his life thus far, not only has he lived many musical lives creating in various incarnations – TV Jones, The Visitors, Angie Pepper Band, New Race, Dodge Main, The Glass Insects, The Soul Movers and more – but he’s also saved lives as an ER doctor and ex-navy flight surgeon, and these days he’s also a coffee farmer living in Hawaii with his own blend of Kona coffee, Tekona.
Gimmie caught up with Deniz recently to chat about his latest project, album Two To One, a collaboration with long-time friend and Stooges’ guitarist James Williamson.
How’s your morning been?
DENIZ TEK: Good. Very productive so far, I got a lot of work done this morning. It’s been a good day! How about yourself?
Very good too! I think every day is a good day though, your day is what you make it.
DT: Yeah. At our age every day you wake up should be a good day, time is limited and you have to make the most of every minute you’ve got.
You’re at The Tek Farm in Hawaii at the moment?
DT: Yeah, I am.
Is that a special place for you?
DT: Yeah, my parents started it about forty years ago, when my dad retired from his job at the University of Michigan. They moved out here to Hawaii and started this farm. My wife Ann and I are out here taking care of the place, we took over running the farm. After my dad died my mother needed the help so we moved out here about three and a half or four years ago, we had been living in Australia before that. She’s now gone into a nursing home for about the last year. We’re just going to stay here and take care of the place for the time being.
That’s lovely of you both. Do you enjoy working outside, outdoors in nature?
DT: Oh yeah! Absolutely. I enjoy it so much better than working inside.
What attitude and spirit do you approach playing the guitar in?
DT: It’s just part of my life. I’ve played guitar since I was twelve years old. I’ve been in bands since high school. I approach it as part of daily life. It’s like eating, drinking, breathing. I play most days, occasionally I don’t play but typically, I’ll play every day.
Does it give you a particular kind of feeling?
DT: Yeah, time disappears for one thing, you stop being aware of the passage of time—you’re totally in the process. Time goes by and it’s very involving, it’s something I can really focus on without any effort involved. When my attention is focused on that, I don’t have any outside distractions.
Is it like a meditation for you?
DT: I suppose you could say that. I’ve tried meditating and I’ve never been very good at that because I keep thinking of too many things but, when I play guitar that’s not an issue so, I guess it is my meditation in some ways. I’ve never really thought about it like that but I think you’ve right.
I understand that having commercial success from your music has never really been a big a motivating factor for you; what are the things that motivate you to create?
DT: The creative process itself is extremely rewarding, it’s not a financial reward but, it’s more of a spiritual reward you get from that. Especially if it’s something that you create that other people can relate to or if it resonates with other people and they like it and it makes their life better in anyway or happier, it helps people forget their problems for a short time—what better reward could you ever hope for.
When you’re creating, whether it’s writing a song or painting; where do you find the most magic in the process?
DT: Whenever there is something new happening that’s going really well its magical. That can be just sitting with a guitar at home or in the recording studio or it can be at a concert. When you’re playing live to people that are throwing energy at the stage and we’re recycling that energy and giving it back to people; also doing it between ourselves in the band, band members giving energy back and forth between each other, that’s real magic—that’s transformational. It works with some higher powers that I don’t’ understand. It’s pretty amazing!
On the new album – Two To One – that you made with James Williamson from The Stooges there’s songs like “Take A Look Around” and “Climate Change” that speak to environmental issues; are these things that are important to you?
DT: Oh yeah! Yeah. These songs are not necessarily meant to be protest songs or political propaganda but they are observational. These songs were holding up a mirror and saying, this is what we’re seeing and this is what you may be seeing as well; maybe to increase awareness in certain ways.
Previously you’ve said that The Stooges album Raw Power helped shape your path as a young guitar player; in what way? What resonated?
DT: That was in 1973 when it came out. I was living in Sydney, I was a student. I was in a band called TV Jones, about a year before [Radio] Birdman started. I already had great inspiration from many other guitar players that were well-known but, I think the guitar playing on Raw Power brought a new element to it. The tone was so brutal and the playing was so aggressive and hard and I hadn’t heard anything quite like it in some time. To me it was wonderful to hear that, it was an affirmation for me that rock n roll music that is very high energy and aggressive was still alive, that The Stooges were able to do that. It was inspirational!
You’re good friends with James now and you’ve worked together before; have you ever had a fan moment with him in any way? Like, this is the guy whose guitar playing resonated with me as a youth!
DT: Yeah, you can’t push that too hard but, I enjoy it when I can get him to tell Stooges stories [laughs]; when he tells me stories that nobody else knows, it’s good to hear that stuff. I love that! That’s being a fan, to want to hear that stuff. Of course I was very curious as to how he got that guitar sound. He’s very happy to tell me about it and show me how he got this or that guitar sound. A Gibson Les Paul through a Vox AC30, cranked up loud with no effects pedals. It’s a balance of being a fan and being a partner in the work we do together AND being a friend. We hang out a fair bit together too, we play tennis and us and our wives go out to dinner together and do things like that.
Nice! Why is writing songs important to you?
DT: I don’t know. I guess it important to me because I feel like I’m contributing something and I have an impulse to create, that satisfies that for me. I have a hope that the songs I write will also benefit others, that people will hear it, like it, dance to it or it will help their day go better. That’s what I hope.
You’ve mentioned before that you’re not quite sure where songs come, that they just arrive, that you have to be tuned into their frequency in a way to find them; is there anything you do to tap into that frequency?
DT: The best thing is to just have a guitar in your hand and be playing, you don’t have to be playing anything specific, you could just be tuning it up, and just have a clear mind, not being distracted. When songs come you grab them out of the air, they come out of you or through you, and then the challenge is to remember it when it happens. You have to try and get it down right away, you write it down or record it. That’s what’s nice about our modern phones, you can record straight away. When these ideas come, if you don’t save them somehow you never remember them the next day. I suppose they float off and someone else gets them [laughs].
Maybe! [Laughter]. I love the storytelling in all of the songs on your new record. One that really stood out to me was “Small Change”.
DT: The thing about “Small Change” was James presented the music for it and a friend of his, Frank Meyers, had written words for it as well. The story for “Small Change” was suggested by Frank’s lyrics but it didn’t quite gel with me, so I took his basic idea and re-wrote it. I turned it more into a story of a woman who decides to become free and leave the small-town single mother existence that she was stuck in, that she’d go off and do something else. The story of how it would take a lot of courage to do that. Sort of like a mini-episode of a movie.
I love the lyric from it: It takes a little bit of change and a great big heart. I think a lot of people can resonate with that. Has there been moments in your life where you’ve done that yourself?
DT: I suppose leaving home when I was sixteen or seventeen years old was sort of like that. Leaving the country at eighteen and just going off overseas with nothing but a backpack and a guitar.
Do you have favourite track on the album?
D: Not really. After it was mixed I didn’t really listen to it. You work so hard on these things and put so many hours into it and you hear it over and over and over again so many times when you’re finishing the production on it that you don’t want to hear it again for a while. I’ve actually put it aside and haven’t listened to it for about a month. When it comes out on vinyl and I have a copy of it I’ll listen to it again. I like all the songs, if I didn’t like them they wouldn’t be on there, I have a different favourite every day.
Why did you decided to call the album, Two To One?
DT: It was a big struggle to find a name for the album until we found one that we could agree on and that hadn’t been used. We’d decide on a name, look it up on allmusic.com and find out there were already thirty albums with that name so, finding something that hadn’t been used before was the challenge. My wife Anne came up with it. It’s an old blues expression and it’s a lyric in a Blind Boy Fuller song from the thirties. Two To One sounds good and it’s two guys doing one thing together.
For both you and James playing guitar is expressing your emotions; is it hard when you have to work with somebody else to get your vision through to fruition?
DT: It can be! It wasn’t in this case. We pretty much agreed on everything. When we first started writing for the album there were come ideas I presented that he didn’t like and likewise, there was a couple he presented that I didn’t like. We didn’t pursue those and we tossed them out early on and focused on the things we both agreed on and both felt were good. Once we had decided on that it was straightforward.
Are you working on new songs now yourself?
DT: Yeah, I am. I’m putting together songs for a new album now. It should have been recorded already but because of the coronavirus we couldn’t travel. Basically, I have another album written and arranged and ready to go. That will be a solo album.
You’ve been working on songs with your wife?
DT: She’ll play guitar on that album as well, when we finally get around to recording it.
Is it nice to have someone so close to you to bounce creative ideas off?
DT: It is! I’ve never had that in that way before. I’ve usually been the only guitar player in the family [laughs].
As well as your music I know you love to do art as well, you paint; is painting for you similar in any way to writing a song?
DT: It’s pretty similar. I’m a much more experienced song writer and guitar player than I am a painter. I’m just getting started with painting and figuring out how to do it. It’s just as much fun. It’s one of those things like I was saying, where time just disappears.
Over the years has there been any advice you’ve gotten I regards to creativity that’s really stuck with you?
DT: Not directly but, I read something that Keith Richards said when he was asked about creativity and he said that the thing he would like to have on his grave would be the words: he passed it on. In other words, you take from your influences in music and then you add something to it of your own and then you pass it on to the next generation. If you can form a link in that chain, that’s the greatest thing that you can do. I always took that it heart. I thought it was a really cool idea and that it was something that I would like to be able to say, I also did that—I formed a link in the chain and passed it on.
I think that you have done that, many times over!
DT: [Laughs] Thanks!
What makes you really, really happy?
DT: Not thinking about happiness but just being, existing in the world and being part of it—that’s what makes me happy. The minute you try to be happy, it just all goes away! [Laughs]. Just being makes me happy!
** Coming soon on Gimmie we also have a chat with The Stooges’ guitarist James Williamson**
Los Angeles-based musician John Dwyer likes to make stuff, he keeps busy making inventive and interesting records as well as outta this world paintings. Gimmie’s editor recently spoke to John for her forthcoming book speaking with underground musicians on creativity, DIY, navigating life as a creative and life in general—coming soon! We wanted to share a little of the chat with you.
JOHN DWYER: I’m with my girlfriend down in Joshua Tree, rather Twentynine Palms, it’s hot as fuck and we’re sitting in the shade by the pool.
Nice! Are you just having a little holiday?
JD: Yeah. It’s a two-hour drive from where we live. We’ve obviously been at home quite a bit, so we had our friend Shannon come over and watch the dog, and just rented a small little house down here with a pool for three days… just to take a break from being around each other constantly in a different environment.
Touring is such a huge part of what you do; how do you feel about not being able to tour right now?
JD: I think it’s shit [laughs], but there’s also not much that can be done about it. It’s a big part of our income, luckily we toured so much last year that everybody is well set for a minute. I think the band is collecting unemployment as we speak; it’s for freelance workers and that’s essentially what they are. I 1099’d them meaning, they’re contractors for my band.
Mostly it’s just the psychic bruise of not being able to travel. I love playing shows, I love travelling. I love going to all the same places; we play the same places because I love them, it’s nothing outside of, we play the same clubs because we like the people that work there. We like going to the same cities, eating at the same joints and seeing friends—everything seems very distant right now. It seems like things are getting worse, so we’ll see if there’s any sort of light at the end of tunnel for music. It’s a real fucked time to be a performer.
Why is music and art important to you?
JD: It’s all that I want to do. I don’t surf or anything. I don’t have anything else. It’s what I wanted to do since I was kid, outside of drugs, it was my first real interest. Watching other people create their own show spaces and doing whatever the fuck they wanted with music meant that I could very much do the same and I followed in their footsteps. Then you work together with other people in DIY scenarios and it becomes a network or dare I even say, a scene. I love it, I still love it. I love writing. Right now I’m writing a ton of music! I have so much shit coming out this year it’s going to be nauseating to anybody who likes to complain about that aspect of my career.
I don’t know why people would want to complain, it’s as easy as, if you don’t like it, don’t listen. It’s so weird to me that people fixate on things they don’t like.
JD: Oh, yeah, I tell people to fuck off all of the time. Lots of areas of the internet are just a psychic toilet. That being said, I catch myself all of the time wanting to talk shit, and constantly have to reprimand myself in my head. I’m trying not to do that more and more as I get older because it’s just exactly it, it’s worthless. The world is so fucked up right now we don’t need any more of that shit.
This year I’ve had a really high output of interviews/work and I feel that some “friends” rather than support and encourage me they kind of give me a hard time and try to make me feel guilty for being so productive. I like being busy.
JD: Oh, Bianca, fuck ‘em! The classics are always right: haters are always gonna hate. I learned at a very young age, which I think you’ll agree, is just to live well. Don’t take the bait on shit like that. The more work you do the better. You’re doing it to keep the wolf from the door [laughs]. It’s good. You should make as much of your work and art as you can. You’re only here for a short amount of time!
My girlfriend yesterday just heard the old cliché phrase: opinions are like assholes, everybody has one. [Laughs]. It’s absolutely true!
After making music for so long; what still makes it interesting and enjoyable for you?
JD: Growth and change. Oh Sees in particular are always interested in innovating on our own sound, or trying new stuff, not necessarily genre-flipping or that; moving more where we are uncomfortable or outside of our wheelhouse.
I’ve been watching a lot of tutorials on guitar playing, with all the shit that’s been happening I’ve finally had all the time to do the dumb shit that I’ve always liked to do but never get around too, like watching guitar tutorials on YouTube. One of them was John Abercrombie, a jazz guitarist. He’s really sick, I love his playing. Him and John McLaughlin, are the greats of improve ‘70s era freakout guitar. Jazz guitar is tough for me, I don’t like a lot of it. These two guys were interesting to me. I was watching him and he was a very uncomfortable character and the way that he talked about it, it’s an hour long interview of him talking about improv but really the gist of it is—don’t play anything that you always play. [Laughs] …which I really took to heart!
It’s really interesting to not go to your typical standbys for things that you always do, because with guitar playing in particular that’s really easy to do, to just fall into the same formula, patterns that work for you. I’ve been trying to follow his very basic rule of exploring new territory intentionally. Letting go a little bit too… very fluid and strange so it was very interesting to hear that from him.
What do you value as a creator?
JD: Lately I’ve been doing a lot of improvisational stuff with players that I’ve brought together. It’s nice to be inspired by people, all the time that happens, we wear it on our sleeves pretty hard. For instance, I heard a guy down the street playing drums when I was out for a run two months ago. I’d heard him a couple of times but I stopped to listen and he was this really strange frenetic jazz drummer. I left a note on his car. I’ve never met him, I don’t know him, and I’ve never even seen what he looks like. He hit me back and I had him send me some tracks and brought in all these players one at a time into my studio and just had them do one take with their instrument over this drum track. We started with bass, then I did keyboards, then I did saxophone, and I ended up doing some of my own shit at the end.
It’s really interesting though that right now, I really particularly at this point in my life, appreciate people’s ability to run with an idea without thinking about it too much. I’ve been, and can really dig, surrounding myself with people that can do that and work fast.
I brought in Laena from Fields to play violin on some of my stuff, a record I have coming out soon. She was great! There was also a French guy I brought in to play saxophone. With the two of them we smoked that much weed in the studio that… I mean, I smoke weed pretty much every day, these two smoked so much dope I can’t understand how they were formulating sounds, it was perfect! I really love that right now. I’ve been searching for people that fall into that category, relaxed and quickly inspired and moving forward. There could be so many different answers for your question but that was what was just in my head right now.
Do you smoke weed mostly to relax or is it just for fun or something else? Does it help your creativity?
JD: Right now, it’s to keep from being depressed, honestly. I don’t really consider myself someone who gets depressed, I have pretty primal east coast America emotions [laughs]. Right now it’s a really tough time for the whole world. Regardless of anybody’s bulldog front they put up in this shit, it’s really exhausting and grating, it wears you down right now.
A good approach for a healthy psyche is to stay busy, throwing yourself into work is pretty typical. Music and art – I’ve been painting a lot too – that kind of stuff has its own natural high. When I was a kid, my parents were happy that I was playing guitar and painting, which they thought would keep me out of trouble. I think it kind of did.
Do you ever surprise yourself with the songs you make?
JD: Occasionally. I’m used to myself, I’m bored of myself completely at this point but, every now and then we’ll hit some new stride. With the new Oh Sees record [Protean Threat] it takes a sort of a left turn, I think it’s a bit different to the direction we’ve been heading in, while maintaining some semblance of the same sound. We’ve got some new ground gained this year, this was all done before everything thing went down, so it will be interesting to see how this sits afterwards.
You’ve recently released a new Damaged Bug record Bug On Yonkers which is you covering songs by musician Michael Yonkers. I know that you met him; what was it like?
JD: He’s great, he’s a real cool cat. I met him actually years ago and we stayed in touch but, I’ve only met him three times. I saw him play in Seattle, we played with him. He’s an incredibly positive person, especially with all of the shit that’s gone on in his life, his story is insane. He’s a genuinely nice guy. In my opinion, I hold him in really high regard in terms of his innovation and creativity and his creation out of nothingness, he even makes his own instruments. He was so great the night we saw him play.
Did any of his positivity rub off on you?
JD: Always. When you know someone like that… it’s always great to have people in your life like that. I have incredibly negative friends too, people I love that are just like dark clouds, y’know, that have a very pessimistic view of the world. You have to balance your whole life. I also think it’s ludicrous to be positive all of the time! I have some friends that are so positive that I think there must be something wrong with their brain [laughs]; a dopamine serge or a serotonin overload, that’s not realistic to me. We need a balance. I envy people that can maintain a positive outlook all the time though. I don’t think Yonkers is one of those people that is insanely positive all of the time though, he’s a genuinely nice person, which I can’t really say that for myself. It’s cool to meet someone you look up to and them be fucking cool and not a dirt bag! Although I do like some dirt bags too, it’s a real mixed bag [laughs]. Yonkers is a good guy, there’s a lot of power packed into that strange mind of his.
Is there something you’d really love to make but haven’t yet?
JD: I would love to do animation. I have a lot of ideas for animation, I think it would be within my grasp to do it. It seems very time consuming. I have a thing I wrote which is an episodic feature length animation that’s based on all of the stuff form when I was kid that I’d love to do. We’ll see if it’s in the cards.
Do you feel like you’re doing your best work now?
JD: I’m always doing my best work now, I don’t give a shit about my old records, I don’t care about my old bands… I have very fond memories and I’m glad I did them but… I’ve done Coachwhips reunion trips and stuff and it’s just boring to me at this point. We have fans now that really like that stuff but for me it will always be about the people that were actually standing there in front of it when it was happening. I always want to move forward and I’ve always been looking forward to the next thing.
You’ve been working on painting inspired by sci-fi novel covers you loved when you were a kid for an art show?
JD: Yeah, I’m about two paintings away from being done for the show that I’ve been working on for three years. They’re really big intricate paintings. The problem now is that there probably won’t be anywhere to show them so I’ll just keep painting [laughs]. They’re inspired by sci-fi pulp covers and are very colourful. They’re 6ft by 4ft, about the size of me. I’m very close to being done with the run of specific paintings I wanted to do.
Have you been working on anything else?
JD: I’m tying up a bunch of records I’ve been working on. I have a whole other Damaged Bug record that’s just sitting there waiting to be finished, which I’ve been procrastinating on forever; it’s all my own songs not covers. Then there’s about three records full of improv stuff I’ve done in my studio with all kinds of different players, more jazz, instrumented stuff. I have one I’m working on now with Nick Murray my old drummer, everything is recorded, I’m just editing it, because it’s improv there’s a lot of material to go through. Then there’s the record I finished with that guy that I met down the street, that’s getting mastered next week, I’m putting together the artwork for that.
I’m just trying to stay fit too. I’ve been doing a lot exercising and I’ve been hanging out with my dog and girlfriend. We’ve been growing a lot of marijuana. The guy who grows my favourite weed gave me a bunch of his plants because he’s going to stop growing. I’ve been growing them and cloning them and keeping the strain alive. They’re doing so well because Los Angeles is so fucking sunny! [laughs]. Lots of gardening.
With your Damaged Bug songs I understand that at the end of last year you had about 40 songs but couldn’t finish them?
JD: Yeah, I had a huge pile of songs… that’s why I did a covers album. It was a little break from the actual record. I have 40 songs all on tape, spooled up—I’ll get there! It’ll be done before the end of this year. We still have shows booked in September through December. I refuse to cancel anything early. We’ll see. I’ll just keep chipping away at my projects, there’s no reason to stop. Once a week I’ll take a day off and do absolutely nothing, just sit on my ass and enjoy the day. I try to be in the studio as much as possible though.
New York art-punk band Guerilla Toss make fun, interesting, super cool, cosmic, synth-pop post-punk! They recently released two new songs – “Human Girl” and “Own Zone” – as part of the Sub Pop Singles Club. Gimmie chatted to vocalist Kassie Carlson from her home on a farm in Upstate New York as they work on new music.
How have you been Kassie?
KASSIE CARLSON: I’ve been good, I’ve just been quarantining here. I don’t live in New York City, I live in Upstate New York, which is two hours away from the city. I’m on a bunch of land, I’m able to not be around people. New York City is pretty crazy right now!
The area you live in has a lot of woodland, a lot of countryside, right?
KC: Yeah, wilderness and farmland. I live on a 260-acre farm, but it’s not a farm anymore it’s kind of… mow the grass and make hay. There’s a lot of open space, we go hiking a lot up here.
You go hiking with your Chow Chow dog, Watley?
KC: Yes, definitely [laughs]. He’s actually outside with me right now as I chat to you.
Do you have a favourite spot you like to go?
KC: There’s lots of different places to go. The other day we hiked to a place called the Balsam Fir Fire Tower, which is an old fire tower that they used to go up to the very top and look over the whole forest to see if there was any fires. That was really cool. It was a really warm day and we hiked all the way to the top of the mountains and at the top there was snow and all of these Balsam Fir trees, it looked like a fairy tale!
That sounds beautiful. I love natural places and just being outside in nature.
KC: Yeah, me too.
Do you ever get inspired creatively from nature?
KC: Yeah, definitely, how could I not!
Have you been doing anything creative lately?
KC: Always, every day I’m doing something… working on music, some days it doesn’t always pan out… just working, writing, reading, stuff like that.
Why is music important to you?
KC: Oh, I don’t know? I guess I’ve always been a fan and then I started making music. I started off young singing in choirs and playing violin, but I was always really into rock music. My brother was a musician in punk rock and metal bands, I thought that was kind of cool. Haphazardly it happened for me, it didn’t happen right away, it happened when I was older. As a teenage girl I was kind of just observing music but then as I got older I became a part of it.
It’s great when you can finally get the confidence to give something a go yourself.
Is there anything that’s helped shaped some of your ideas about art and creativity?
KC: When I say I entered the music world being in a band, it was kind of because the entryway was easy, it was paved out… I don’t know if they have these in Australia but, here we have a lot of underground shows, basement shows; I lived in a house that had basement shows every night. It was easy to just try something out, the atmosphere was very supportive. I hung out with a lot of people that went to art school and music school. There was a lot of room to experiment in a way that I think a lot of people don’t necessarily have, I was lucky in that sense. I had a really supportive audience.
I read that when you were younger you liked to listen to Mariah Carey, TLC and Destiny’s Child…
KC: Yeah, of course! [laughs]. Did you?
Yes, sure did! I grew up liking those artists and then punk and hip hop and all kinds of things, I had four older siblings that all liked different music and my mum and dad too, I kind of just absorbed everything. I love stuff from doo-wop all the way through to noise stuff.
KC: Yeah, same.
I saw a photo of Watley online and there was a big record collection in the background; is that yours?
KC: They weren’t my records, they’re the drummer from Guerilla Toss’ records. We have a lot of records in the house that’s for sure.
Is there an album that you’ve listened to more than any other?
KC: I’m all over the place. I’m always listening to a million things. I’ve been trying to find new things lately, I’ve been going through things and just picking random shit to get my creative ideas flowing. I have a lot of cassette tapes too.
I used to find a lot of new music through trading tapes with my friends.
KC: Yeah, I feel like that’s how I discovered a lot of new music too. I grew up in Cape Cod, which is kind of like a beach town in Massachusetts. They have these swap shops there at the dump so it’s basically like a free store and you take whatever you want, sometimes there’s really good stuff there; I got my first guitar amp there and a bunch of cool clothes. I got my very first cassettes there too, they were mixtapes that somebody had made.
That’s awesome! I love going to thrift stores and the dump shop near where I live here too. It’s good for the environment too reusing items rather than putting them in landfill; people can be so wasteful.
KC: Oh yeah! People don’t want to take it to the second-hand shop and they just leave them at these places and it won’t just go to the trash. So much clothing gets thrown away.
Totally! Basically my whole wardrobe is made up of clothes from thrift stores. You find so much cool stuff, and its stuff that not everyone else is wearing. I find it so hard to go the regular shops/mall to buy stuff. Before you started playing in a band; did you express yourself creatively in any other way?
KC: I’ve done some painting but nothing major really. [Laughs] Sewing, I guess.
You mentioned that you started singing in choirs; did you jump into bands from there or were you making music yourself?
KC: It was kind of like hot and cold, off and on. I didn’t really play in bands until I was in my twenties. I’d mess around on the keyboard and make little guitar songs… I was kind of in a metal band! Then I made my own music.
Your solo stuff was the Jane La Onda stuff, right?
KC: Yeah [laughs].
I understand that you have a real love for words and enjoy reading; what are you reading at the moment?
KC: I’m reading a lot of magazines. I’m reading Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino. They’re really cute, interesting, whimsical Italian folktales with a cerebral twist. I really like the way he uses words and meaning. I started reading The Water Dancer [by Ta-Nehisi Coates].
One of your favourite books is Siddhartha by Herman Hesse?
KC: Yeah, yeah. I like him a lot. I like the way he uses words and perception. He takes you on a journey with words.
I wanted to ask you about your writing; do you ever have a vision for a song before you sit down to write it?
KC: Not usually. Usually I’ll be listening to sounds that could become a song and those sounds have a meaning in them that I like after listening to it over and over. Sometimes I write little things before but it’s more that I hear the music and the words are already in there, the pattern is in there somewhere and I have to find it by listening to it over and over again.
What kinds of things have you been finding yourself writing about lately?
KC: Honestly, I’ve been writing a lot of political stuff in a way. Coronavirus isn’t as crazy in Australia, right?
That’s right, we’ve been pretty lucky compared to a lot of countries.
KC: New York is crazy. I haven’t worked for a whole month because I have a heart condition. I’m usually working a lot and keeping busy being out and about talking to people, but I haven’t really gone out much. It’s interesting writing in this time.
Do you feel lonely living away from your band members Upstate?
KC: Oh definitely! The drummer is up here and the guitar player is up here right now too, we’ve been working a new music. It’s kind of like a reprieve though, we played over 100 shows last year and toured all over the country as well as going to Europe. To be in a city too is really taxing too.
I feel that when I go into the city too, I live in a costal beachside town that’s really laidback. I’ll drive to the nearest capital city that’s an hour away from me and after being there a half hour I’ll get too overwhelmed!
KC: Yeah, it’s like chaos!
Previously you’ve mentioned that when you play live it’s like a deep meditation for you; do you do meditation in any other areas of your life?
KC: Yeah, walking meditation when I’m walking through the woods with Watley. Anytime really, doing anything. Even washing dishes, like feeling the warmth of the hot water on your hands or pausing in any way; looking at a plant; or even driving is a meditation in a way, I think.
So for you it’s having an awareness of what you’re doing and being in the moment?
KC: Yeah, awareness and a pause, remembering that you’re in a body. It can be resting for a second.
In isolation do you have a typical day or a routine you do?
KC: Yeah. I wake up around 9 or 10am and then I make some oatmeal and coffee. I take a shower. Then I’ll work on music from 11 to 7. Maybe have a snack somewhere in there at around maybe 2pm. At 7 I’ll make dinner. After that I’ll work on music again until 10pm. At 10 I’ll watch a movie. That’s what I do every day. Maybe in the middle of the day I’ll take a hike or two.
Do you learn things about yourself when making music?
KC: Definitely. Writing lyrics is like going; what’s happening in my brain? How am I feeling? What is my current experience? What do my past experiences mean? Even the lyrical process beyond writing the lyrics initially, when I’m performing, the meaning of lyrics singing them over and over again for many years, eight years now in some cases, the meaning of the lyrics change. I feel like I’m constantly learning about myself, it’s like a constant self-awareness and the awareness of people around you and what’s happening on the Earth and how you interpret that. I’m a pretty high anxiety person, so the profession of being a frontwoman in a band is a weird choice; it’s also not a weird choice because it’s a process, the process of me coming out of my shell and me interpreting my anxieties and dealing with them and dealing with trauma. I would definitely say that I am always learning about myself and other people [laughs] and those interactions.
So by your showing those parts of you and you trying to work yourself out, because it’s honest and really looking at things, that resonates with others and might help them in their life?
KC: Yeah. I hope someday you can see us perform because I think our performance brings the music to a different level. I can act things out and you can see different accents on things. The music recordings are great but I hope you can see us perform.
KC: When I first started touring we would be the only band with a girl on it on the bill. It was crazy and so weird. Now there’s a lot more women and all different types of people. It felt like; do they just like us because I’m a girl? I want people to like us because it’s good music.
Another thing I love about Guerilla Toss is the art work for your albums, I’s always so colourful!
KC: Yeah! [laughs].
Is there any thought behind making it so colourful?
KC: I guess to make it fun and interesting. We’re doing a release for the Sub Pop Singles Club and that one is actually not colourful.
What songs will be on that release?
KC: It’s actually two new songs that no one has heard.
I love that Guerilla Toss’ music is all so different.
KC: I always think it’s weird when someone’s like, ‘I like your older stuff’; if we were to make stuff that sounds the same all the time that wouldn’t be very genuine.
Is sharing your music with others important to you?
KC: Yeah. I hope people listen to it and have fun or have some kind of experience, even if it’s, ‘oh god, this is intense!’ and they think it’s awful… at least they had some sort of reaction and experience with it [laughs]. Or if they see us and go, ‘oh, that was really harsh’ or ‘wow! That was softer than I thought it would be’.
Ok, last question; have you ever had a really life changing moment?
KC: Yeah. So many. When I had heart surgery, is an easy thing to say. I had open heart surgery two years ago. I had an infection in one of my heart valves. It was crazy, really intense. For the first time… I usually feel my whole life that I’ve been kind of like a tank: I’m super strong, I don’t really get sick, I feel strong-willed and do what I want. I was really floored by this sickness. I didn’t really feel right until kind of recently. It took a long time to recover. The recovery was so abstract that I didn’t really feel like I could relate to anyone. It was a multi-faceted recovery. I felt alone in it but I really am glad that I am where I am right now—in a beautiful place in nature and still writing music and still alive! It’s cool to have Watley too, he’s a great dog!
Is there anything that you’d really love to do creatively or in life in general right now?
KC: I really just want to travel more. That’s probably my favourite thing about touring. It wasn’t until more recent years of touring that we started to be more tourist-y, like going to national parks. We went to Yellowstone National Park! That was always my dream to go there. I remember having a National Geographic magazine when I was a kid and seeing all the geysers in it and the buffalo—I love animals and nature! Another time we were in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and we went to this amazing place and went on a river raft ride. In San Diego we went on this kayak ride, we were ocean kayaking through these sea caves. It was super epic! That’s what I really want to do with the rest of my life, I don’t need to be super rich or super popular with my music, I just want to see the world and see amazing shit!
At the heart of Canadian punk band Red Mass is Roy Vucino and Hannah Lewis, though since its inception the band has welcomed over 100 artists and musicians into its unconventional fold forming an ever evolving creative collective. Red Mass’ creation process is inspired by automatic creation techniques and Chaos Magic, openness to pure potentiality and limitless possibility—a desire to create art for art’s sake. Their latest album A Hopeless Noise is an ambitious concept album crafted as a loose modern day retelling of the literature classic Don Quixote but with a female lead, in character Diamond Girl. The LP features Mike Watt, King Khan, Mac DeMarco, Rick Froberg, members of Black Lips, God Speed You! Black Emperor and more. Gimmie spoke to Roy and Hannah to find out more after they had to cut the album’s European tour short due to the recent pandemic.
Why is music important for you?
ROY VUCINO: For years I had a darker time, it helped me get my life in order. I dropped a lot of bad habits and I really concentrated on music, not only as an escape but basically as a way to channel all of my energy and creativity into something that was more positive.
HANNAH LEWIS: I moved a lot when I was a kid. My dad’s a professor, he’s actually a theologian, and we ended up moving all over the world when I was younger. I really, really, really had an affinity for music at a young age, I really explored that, especially because a lot of the places that we ended up moving were pretty remote. We lived in Cape Breton which is a small island off Nova Scotia and Iqaluit which is in the Artic, I was there for my high school; in these places I was able to explore my mind and I think music really helped me do that and was a way for me to express that exploration.
When did you each start making your own music?
HL: I started quite young. When I was very, very young I used to just walk around and sing for hours, whatever came into my head, in the countryside or in the tundra. When I consciously started writing music I was probably thirteen or fourteen.
RV: I started music really young too. I used to play in restaurants and stuff like that. I did classical training. I started writing when I hit mid-teens. The first band I did was more of a dancehall reggae band, after that I started playing in punk bands, initially more garage-based, the rawness of it appealed to me. Skill-wise with the punk stuff it was so easy to record, I could do it with my friends in our basement on a 4-track, that was a big part of the appeal. That’s when I started recording and writing my own music.
Together you’re a really amazing creative team; how did you first meet?
HL: Though friends of friends. I’d moved down to Montreal for school to go to university. I went to see a couple of Roy’s bands before I met him. I started my own punk band and we ended up dating… we were doing Red Mass…
RV: We’re married now. I went to the Arctic to see if I could live there and open a little studio there, it was way too much The Shining for me, too isolated, so she came to Montreal and stayed here. At the beginning we weren’t doing music together, we had our bands; I had Pypy and CPC Gangbang which are more psych bands, and she had Hiroshima Shadows. I played for her band first, filling in on bass and when that broke up she pretty much came into Red Mass.
What’s something important you’ve both learnt from punk?
RV: When I was younger I’d think of it as more rock n roll based punk that had more of a party vibe that would tie into bands that had more of a nihilistic outlook like the ‘70s L.A. punk. When I got older my taste started varying, I’ve always liked all sorts of music, I really found post-punk opened up that door for me and I started exploring all the genres in that subgenre, that was really what got me! In essence the idea of punk comes from art movements like Dada, which was more of a rebellious and innovative form of creation—that’s what drew me to punk, the innovative side. I still love the wild rock n roll bands though!
I grew up in the suburbs and I listened to a lot of experimental music because of a radio show called Brave New Waves with Patti Schmidt. She would play garage to avant-garde music, you would hear from Derek Bailey to Thee Headcoats, which really blew my mind! When I got into punk, the bands that I really appreciated would be the ones that I considered were trying to innovate in the genre.
HL: For me, punk really opened up the world of music and connections with so many different people. When I started getting into the punk scene, especially in Montreal when I moved down here, it was so varied. You’d go to a show and there would be a noise band, a country-flavoured punk outfit and so many genres crossing and communicating with each other through shows and art. It was really incredible. It taught me not to limit art to any one thing and to accept anything to be art if it’s presented so by whoever is presenting it and to not just go with the concept in mind of what that’s supposed to be.
RV: Montreal was also a really fun city for punk, because there were different scenes. Bands from here achieved a certain amount of international recognition like, Godspeed You! Black Emperor; they’re all punks, they started to work with Constellation Record, and you have this whole avant-garde scene based on Americana, bands that were really influenced by that, the cinematic sound. Then you had bands like The Sainte Catherines, buddies of ours that signed to Fat Wreck Chords, so there was that skate-punk scene. We were playing more garage-punk. All these different bands co-existed and that was really great. Then there’s bands like AIDS Wolf and the noise scene. It was fun because we all had the same sentiment but we didn’t get bored because things were so varied. Someone would be on a bill doing power-electronic and someone from the country scene doing something…
HL: There would be no rules!
That’s the punk I like the best too, real varied stuff. I think genres are pretty flaky and now everything’s so blurred anyway, if you’re just playing and stuck in one style it’s so boring, to me at least. In the beginnings of punk everyone sounded different.
I’ve read that Red Mass incorporate automatic creation techniques into your creative process. Is that like automatic writing?
RV: Yes. It’s based on a lot of ideas put forward by Grant Morrison the comic book writer as well as Austin Osman Spare; he was the first occultist, spiritualist, to bring forth notions of automatic writing and letting your intuition and subconsciousness take over, which also the Surrealists did. We use a lot of sigils and elements of Chaos Magic in our art and in our music but also in our lives, we tie it all in together. A lot of our [album] covers have sigils. We really make music and art for art’s sake. We’ve done a lot of improvisational releases and shows. I find it interesting and important to be able to communicate with people through improvisation, it’s something we try to bring into a project.
How did you first come to Austin Osman Spare’s work?
RV: I’ve read quite a few books on Chaos Magic, I’ve read Phil Hines and Grant Morrison, and some of the more recent authors, so through there I would have discovered Spare. I used to read a lot of [Aleister] Crowley, then I gravitated more to the Chaos magicians, and Austin Osman Spare is one of the originators of these techniques.
Chaos Magic is often misunderstood, from my perspective I feel it’s more of a DIY approach to spirituality and focusing on channelling your own thoughts and energies; what do you think?
RV: It’s exactly that. What you just said is exactly what it is. It’s a DIY approach to spirituality and you create your own belief system around your own iconography and your own symbolism.
I think that’s pretty cool. In a lot of religious texts, for example the Bible, it says that the kingdom of heaven is within you and everything you need is within yourself, it’s all just about tapping into that—living in your truth and trusting yourself.
RV: Yes. There’s elements of all religions and beliefs that tie into that. A lot of these beliefs systems have similar plots, if you want to call them that. Everything with Chaos Magic basically makes it so you don’t have to abide by a specific type of ritual and belief and you can morph it to your own needs.
What are some of your rituals you use to tap into your creativity?
RV: I really like sigil magic so I use a lot of that in the music. I use rituals in the bands, we’ve done performances with rituals, we use them more in our day-to-day life though. It comes and goes, they’ll be points in my life where I really delve into it but then there’s times I’ll have other creative outlets. It basically runs side by side with my artistic development.
What does spirituality mean to you?
HL: I really connect to nature heavily. With my father being a Theologian, I grew up with him teaching at university, it really knocked down thinking of spirituality as any kind of institution of any sort that’s for sure. Spirituality is connecting with yourself and surroundings and other humans and really finding joy and peace with who you are and what you’re putting out into the world and how you’re affecting it or not, or finding whatever you are looking for in the world.
RV: Spirituality is something that’s a way to tap into the oneness of life and the greater force at work. I used to dabble more in elements of dark arts, occultism but with time I definitely prefer a more positive kind of energy, Chaos Magic gave me that. My spirituality is really open. I think every religion has its truth in it, spirituality is more expressed to oneself how we can cope and situate ourselves in that, that sometimes overwhelming sense of confusion which we may have in front of that, the interconnectedness of everything. Spirituality is a way to give oneself answers or to explain to oneself things that aren’t clearly explainable, maybe more on a metaphysical level.
Previously you’ve mentioned that playing music is a way that you can connect with people and that it’s part of the reason why you do…
RV: Totally! We’ve never approached the band as a regular recording project, we’re talking about being free in our creativity and we’ve always wanted to push our own boundaries and innovate. We decided to approach it differently than you would an art project, we choose not to have a fixed line-up, not to have a fixed genre, to throw it all out the window. What we consider was something fresh for us, was to innovate in the format of the creativity and the bands structure. Instead of innovating with a certain type of music signature or instrumentation, we thought the way for us to move forward was to throw all that out and have a very open project that in itself was…
HL: The only restrictions we had were making music that was it. Every song we were doing was approached as its own thing. We were working on a project but we weren’t restricting ourselves to sound, we really wanted to make it as open and fluid as possible by principal and see where it went.
Your latest album A Hopeless Noise is in a way a modern day retelling of the story of Don Quixote, right?
RV: Yeah, it started like that.
What sparked the idea for it? Were you reading Don Quixote at the time?
RV: Literally I was reading Don Quixote. It is an amazing novel. I wanted to touch on the idea of illusions of grandeur. We had been writing songs around a Diamond Girl character who falls from grace and we thought it will tie in. We were also into Bret Easton Ellis’ work at the time so we added these elements of decadent glamour. We threw it all in a pot and it basically gave the flavour of A Hopeless Noise.
Where did the character Diamond Girl come from?
RV: It’s so old I honestly don’t remember…
RV: It’s actually one of the first tracks that we recorded. One of our friends Sebastien Perry used us as his final project for school and we needed a song. I had the song ‘Diamond Girl’ that I had written around ten years ago and we just sat on it, the idea not the character [laughs]. We decided to revisit the character and had been writing a few songs like ‘Sharp’ that’s on the record and ‘Howl’. One thing that I thought was interesting is that Bret Easton Ellis had a crew of writers with him when he really exploded, all of the stories and the plots were in the same universe, different writers would be writing around the same fictional school. I always thought that was pretty neat. Their art lived and went on these adventures and pop up in somebody else’s art. It blew me away!
HL: The fictional world is from many people’s world not just one mind.
I read it took five years to make the album, but from what you’re telling me it’s been an idea and in parts for much longer.
HL: It took us a while because we were writing songs and we thought, we should do the guitar like this… eventually we thought if we want to have a bass line sound like Mike Watt or something… Roy was like, ‘I’m going to write Mike Watt and see if he’ll do it’. Mike Watt wrote us back and sent us a bass line the very next day. We thought; why don’t we approach things like that? If we think of people who would fit the part of the song best, let’s ask them! The only thing was that it took a while to get some tracks back from people.
RV: I’d say it took maybe ten years if anything. We didn’t want to rush it. It was a weird one. We’ve had a slew of labels interested at different times and some of them dropped the album because it was taking too long, some of them ended up not understanding it, but we never gave up on it! This record is also something that we have been working on in our relationship, basically we started seeing each other and then we started writing on this. It’s really mirrored our lives because we’ve been working on it so long. We ended up having to go back and work on some of the earlier tracks because we weren’t as happy with some of them as we were with the later tracks, it was a little bit of an endless circle for a while, but after a while it came together. Initially it was meant to be a double album. We ended up going back and taking out songs that had spread a little far from the theme of the record and the concept and story behind it. Once we cut down everything that was superfluous we got what we think is something solid and that we’re proud of.
HL: One of us always had a problem with it and then at one point we were both like—this is it! We left it on the table and didn’t touch it after a certain point. It’s pretty crazy that it’s out! It came out when we were in Austria recently. We were going into the studio from 9 to 1AM every night for years… any idea we had we tried. It taught us so much in the studio and so much about creativity and how we work together and separately.
RV: We really indulged. It’s really important to indulge sometimes, I often see it mentioned and it’s seen as a negative thing but I think it’s fun to be able to enjoy yourself working on something. We gave ourselves zero deadlines. I took a few months to back away from it and get a little bit of perspective and when we came back for a few months, we listened to the whole thing and knew that is was done.
HL: We were also working on other projects at the time. It was interesting how it affected how we both worked with other people and how we were expanding our skill sets.
What was something that sticks out from all the things that you learnt during this process?
RV: To work with people. Often we’d push musicians we worked with out of their comfort zones and have them do different things from what they were used to. It worked sometimes but sometimes it backfired.
HL: Because we were spending so much time in the studio we were also able to push ourselves out of our comfort zone pretty heavily. We made a concerted effort to see how far we could go with things. It was interesting to see and work with another person when they were out of their comfort zone and make them feel comfortable with you and navigate that and trust in yourself and whoever is in the room with you. Eventually we were able to access that with people we worked with because we worked with so many and had been doing it for ourselves too. It’s super fun!
RV: Most things worked well but sometimes things flop, but that’s ok because it’s part of the process. We have a follow up record coming where we’re exploring a new idea it’s, 111 Songs, which is an angel number, a magic number… songs are divided into eleven chapters, each chapter representing a type of personality. As the Diamond Gilr’s psychological state deteriorates because of her multiple personalities, we explored the idea – which is something that comic book writer Grant Morrison put forward – that we should live with a multiple personality complex. If the Diamond Girl would let all her multiple personalities co-exist, sometimes you can avoid a psychosis like that; you can also apply that on a societal level. We used some of the songs that didn’t work for the specific record of A Hopeless Noise and attached them to certain personality traits of the character. The idea is, if you let the personalities co-exist in you, you find a certain harmony.
So you’re still working on 111 Songs?
HL: Yeah, we’ve been doing it since just after we finished A Hopeless Noise. We were living in such a great apartment where we had such a great setup and were recording every single day for two years. Roy came up with the concept pretty early into working on that.
RV: We’re 90% done.
Nice! I can’t wait to hear it. It sounds really interesting and exciting!
HL: It’s certainly weird hearing my twenty-year-old voice [laughs].
RV: Yeah, some of the material is so old. We really hear ourselves’ age on some of it.
Are you working on anything else?
HL: We’re working on another project…
RV: It’s called Birds Of Paradise. It’s a little classic rock and there’s some country material. We’re working on a kid’s book. I’m writing a short novel. I’m also working with Pypy, which I do with musicians from Duchess Says. I do FUBAR… I have a band called Nightseeker, which is basically the Canadian Spinal Tap, we actually did a TV show for Vice; we play exaggerated metal versions of ourselves [laughs].
HL: FUBAR is like a mockumentary.
RV: It’s a mockumentary that turned fantasy into reality though, we go out and we play real shows. Hannah’s worked on a few documentaries too.
What’s the best thing about working with each other?
HL: We definitely have worked on working with each other [laughs], it was kind of difficult at different periods of our relationship because we’re living together too. We’ve found a really good groove with one another and we’ve been able to sit down and produce a lot together. It’s nice to have someone around that every single day you can put your heads together and get stuff done. You’re constantly really in a good work vibe and productive.
RV: For me travelling together is number one. We’ve been all across the US and Europe. That’s a big plus being a married couple and playing music and making art together.
HL: Yeah, you don’t get lonely on the road.
RV: I’d like to think we really get along, I think that’s the magic, I really love it! We definitely have similar tastes, I remember one of the first times we met. I went to her house, she was way younger than me….
HL: I’m still way younger! [laughs].
RV: [Laughs] Well not way younger but younger, she was ten years younger than me, she was in her early twenties and me in my thirties already. I came in and she was listening to Captain Beefheart and that blew my mind! I was like, oh my god! Oh my god! Who is this person?!
RV: She came to see me to do a little weird bluse-y set at some random place…
HL: It was a place called The Cop Shop.
RV: Yeah. After that I went to her house and she was watching Planet Earth and listening to Captain Beefheart I was like, oh my god! I need to marry this person… and we did! Our tastes are very alike in certain ways, I listen to cornier pop stuff though. I think I’m a bit more…. [*pauses to think*]
HL: Ohhhh, careful now [laughs].
RV: …I have more of a tolerance for stuff that might be a bit cornier. We listen to all kinds of stuff, we find a similar ground in the music that we like.
HL: It’s really great to be able to introduce each other to different art constantly! It would be really difficult to live with someone that you couldn’t do that with.
RV: We both know the other and we listen to anything. We both gravitated towards punk because…
HL: The ethics!
RV: Yeah, the ethics and the creative process behind it, that’s what led us to do this band. Punk’s been done for forty years now, we thought; how do we do something different? We just decided to do what we want, when we want and just indulge and have fun—only for the love of art and music. For me it’s totally been a life saver!
HL: It’s cool to be in a place where people come and contribute what they want to contribute and not feel intimated…
RV: Or obliged…
HL: There’s never an intent or expectation of anyone during it. We keep ourselves open to keep it going.
Is there anything you guys are doing in isolation to keep on top of your wellbeing?
RV: I learnt how to cook!
HL: [Laughs] He was terrible at cooking.
RV: I’ve become a just above average cook, before this you could consider me as someone that would make everything into dog food [laughs]. I had no patience and no love for it, I didn’t understand… like food was very functional for me. I’d eat standing up in my kitchen just shoving in whatever, now I cook!
HL: I used to work in kitchens. When I was really young I really wanted to be a chef. It used to be appalling watching him in the kitchen, up until very recently [laughs].
RV: We share the chores so I was always cooking and she would just be very polite and eat it. Now it’s good! I can sit down and actually enjoy a meal, so that’s been one of the big changes for me. I’ve been working a bit on my novel. We’re going to do some videos. We’re working on our country record…
HL: Yeah, we’re really starting to look at doing a country record so it’s fun looking through all the old country music and trying to figure out how that side of things work in music. I’ve been looking at different vocal styles, stuff like that. I started exercising, so that’s… interesting! [laughs]. I’m very out of shape!
RV: For the first whole month of this virus pandemic, she was also not here, she was in another province, Ontario, about an hour and a half away from here. So I spent that first month of this thing alone… I really feel for people that are alone because you kind of get loopy a little bit. I was starting to go dark and get depressed but she came… playing music also helps, you can only watch so much and read so much. We have all our guitars and amplifiers here so we have a good little setup and make music, which has been a bit of a life saver for me.
That’s the same with my husband and I, we both make art and do music, we’ve been together over eleven years. It’s nice to create together and just be around each other and like you were mentioning before, you can show each other new art and music. I think that’s really inspiring and special.
RV: That’s awesome! Yes, when it works! [laughs]. I’ve seen bands with couples and I’m like mmmmhmmm, I don’t wanna be in that band!
Last question; have you ever had a really life changing moment?
RV: I had to really flip my life around, I had two heart attacks, I was doing a lot of hard drugs when I was younger. I had to have an epiphany. The first version of my epiphany was me becoming a “Born Again” for like a minute, that faded and I found myself more in Chaos Magic, that spirituality. I definitely had a moment where I had to make a rift with my previous life and start from scratch. It really coincided with the beginning of this project. Before that I was playing in more nihilistic punk bands, whereas Red Mass has a very positive outlook—it’s very much about the love and creativity. What about you Hannah?
HL: My dad was drinking a lot and I had to go pick him up at one point and he was really ill, that was a real game changer for me, in the way that I attack life… kind of breaking away from feeling responsible for things that I am not in control of and accepting that—that has been a completely freeing experience for me. To know that I am able to love and care but also not be in control of something. That was a year or two ago, but that was a really big game changer for me.
I love hearing stories of growth and how people deal with experiences in their life and come out the other side. Life can be so rough sometimes and challenging. Sharing experiences can help others who might be reading or hearing it realise that they’re not as alone as they may have thought.
RV: It really allows you to get more perspective and have more empathy. For me, that’s a little bit of why I’ve liked to work in the manner that we have because it allows us to meet people on their terms. To try to relate to someone on a different level and to try to understand their passion and what makes them tick, is really cool. We’re all more similar than we think, we just have little variations. The communicative aspect of collaborating and working with people and the learning is really a driving force for us.
HL: It’s interesting to see how you can musically get along with someone that’s coming from a completely different thought, but then you can play with someone who has practically the same taste and it just doesn’t gel.
RV: It’s the alchemy of art! Sometimes it’s still fun when it doesn’t work, because it is just for fun. If you’re not putting an expectation or an end goal on it, it’s the experience of creating the art itself, the process, that’s enough to be fulfilling.
Devo are one of our all-time favourite bands! They were punk before punk. Staring out in 1973, the band was born out of the transformative effects of a historic tragedy, the Kent State Massacre Shootings – Kent State being the university where Gerald Casale, soon-to-be Devo co-founder, was in attendance. Four students were shot during the protest against the Cambodia Campaign (US military operations, including the illegal bombing of Cambodia). Gerald was there on the front line and saw “exit wounds from M1 rifles out the backs of two people” that were friends. The Ohio National Guard fired 67 rounds at unarmed demonstrators in 13 seconds! Witnessing this changed the course of Gerald’s life, he took the anger, frustration and disappointment in the powers that be – he saw “clearly, and horrifically, how everything really works, and how the truth doesn’t matter” – and channelled that into music and visual art, thus creating Devo, one of the most original bands that ever was.
Our editor interviewed Gerald in-depth for her book on punk, creativity and spirituality that will be out later in the year. The following is just a short extract from the larger chat.
Have you always been a creative person?
GERALD CASALE: I guess I have been, you don’t think of it that way but in retrospect, yes.
What attracted you to taking that path?
GC: I don’t think creative people choose to be creative, personally. I think that they are and they can’t help it. Furthermore, I think that so many young people as they grow up are innately creative, but they are somehow socialised to quit being creative and to quit trusting their instincts and their intuitions and they lose that ability. Whereas people that end up being called creative, all they did was stay true and in touch with their ability.
What has fuelled your creativity?
GC: I’m not sure about that in the beginning… as children we have all these dreams and intuitions and fantasies and epiphanies that the human complex brain, even in a child first making connections, you’re unfiltered then and uncensored, so you start writing things or drawing things, whatever you do. What you’re doing is externalizing your thoughts. If you become “artistic” or the other people in society in your group of humans decides you are artistic, you start doing things consciously because you’re getting rewarding for “oh, that guy can draw” or “wow! That’s a great short story he wrote”—we all want to be accepted and find a reason to be part of a society where you’re rewarded. So the artist finds out that they can still be accepted and still be true to themselves.
Have there been times in your life when you haven’t been creative or maybe doubted your abilities to create?
GC: [Laughs] Anybody that would say that hasn’t happened would be lying. As you get older and the pressure mounts and the forces of conformity and survival basically attack your freedom and your creativity, you go through periods of course where you give up or question what you’re doing. So, yeah, it’s cyclical.
What’s been one of the biggest challenges for you in regards to your creative life?
GC: Opportunity. I have no shortage of ideas and insights and plans but of course so much of what an artist does depends on opportunity, mostly financial but also distribution. Here’s an idea… how does the world see that idea? Well, someone has got to let them see it, there’s all these gatekeepers, all these middle management censorship kind of people and they don’t share your vision, your originality, they don’t share your ability to create, but what they’re there to do is to decided which creative people get seen and heard. That’s what you read about all the time, that’s why people feel so disenfranchised, as minorities, as disenfranchised people because of their sexuality or whatever, they’re not getting the same opportunities; certainly historically they have not gotten the same opportunities as “insiders” the people that are embraced as the ruling class.
Was it hard for you to balance expressing yourself and being an artistic band and then when you got really popular and broke into the mainstream; was it hard to balance these things?
GC: Certainly, but not consciously. DEVO was “an art band”. We became popular for doing exactly what we wanted to. We didn’t change what we wanted to do to become popular. Suddenly here’s an artist doing something nobody cares about that everyone is making fun of, everybody is putting you down then suddenly that same exact thing hits a moment in the cultural zeitgeist where people go, “oh, these guys weren’t clowns, they were right” and now you’re popular. Now the only challenge is to stay relevant and keep doing what you do rather than letting your popularity stop you from doing what you were doing. In other words the artist is ultimately responsible, you’re always going to have your enemies, you’re always going to have people trying to thwart you and block you and bring you down but finally, the artist is the only one that can bring themselves down.
Read the full interview soon in book, Conversations with Punx.