Montreal Post-Punks Red Mass: “Red Mass has a very positive outlook—it’s very much about the love and creativity”

Original image courtesy of Red Mass. Handmade collage by B.

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.

Photo by Marie-Claude Guay.

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.

HL: Exactly!

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.

Photo by Alex Pallion.

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…

HL: [Laughs].

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?!

HL: [Laughs].

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.

Please check out: RED MASS. Red Mass on Facebook. Red Mass on Instagram. A Hopeless Noise out on Mothland.