Tuesday, August 25, 2020

INTERVIEW: Outside the Comfort Zone: Genres, Rip-offs, and DIY with Jem from DEAD

 Outside the Comfort Zone: Genres, Rip-offs, and DIY with Jem from DEAD

DEAD: Jem's the one on the left.  My left, not his.  Um.

Onstage, he’s a gargantuan rock-beast with a voice like gravel, furiously pounding the skins like he’s got four arms and is powered by steam.  Offstage, he’s a teensy little dude who’s maybe the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.  Welcome to the idiosyncratic world of Jem from DEAD.

 

MB: Before we get into it, I just want to admit that I was a huge fan of your old band Fire Witch (I still actually think of you as “Jem from Fire Witch”), and that, when I first saw DEAD, I actually went “oh well, they’re no Fire Witch are they” and kinda stopped following your work.  Now, in hindsight, this was completely a terrible decision on my part, and I want to apologise for that.  I’m sorry.   Because DEAD are fucking great.  Not really a question, more of an acknowledgement, I guess.  Perhaps not the best way to start an interview.

J: Ha! I think that’s perfectly fair - they are very different beasts even if my fingerprints are all over both bands. I’ve had the same experience with some bands/musicians before too. The music Fire Witch made is still very dear to me. I would never try and recreate it elsewhere as the sound we made was very much something created together and entirely democratic.  Fire Witch was perhaps more my natural state whereas DEAD challenges me to step outside the comfort zone more. We’re now ten years in and I still feel that way about us. If anything I’ve just gotten more comfortable with making music outside my comfort zone. It’s still the same approach as Fire Witch though in the sense that our sound is the result of the two of us and that result is kind of a third person that neither of us can control - if that makes sense? It’s about respecting each other and exploiting our strengths while also challenging ourselves. 

MB: What’s most challenging about DEAD for you?  Where’s your comfort zone extend to, and in what ways is DEAD outside of it?   

J: For me my natural state as a drummer is to be locked in with a bass player and forming a foundation of a song - pretty typical rhythm section stuff. With DEAD we are often doing this two piece version of a power trio thing where I guess we are both playing that little bit extra. It requires a lot more focus on what each other is doing and how our individual parts combine to make a whole. This means sometimes spending more time in my head than I would in my comfort zone. I sometimes have to tear apart what my hands want to play and force them to do something different. Then I spend a long time learning my part to the point that I’m not in my head anymore and I can play the part naturally.

I’m also just not naturally a traditional song structure kind of player. I love the challenge of doing that with DEAD (when we do it) but I feel it’s pretty obvious that I’m a bit out of my comfort zone doing it. I’m not worried by this, I’m more than happy to be out in the open and have never strived to sound normal.

MB: DEAD has the perfect combination of immense brutality and inexplicable weirdness, and an almost inhuman level of tightness.  What drives DEAD?  Is it this never-ending search for the world’s heaviest riff?  Is it finding that place where the expected and the unexpected lock together?  Is it a desire to balance that brutality with that supertight emptiness – the contrast between the sound and the space between sounds?  What makes DEAD happen? 

J: To put it really simply we care a lot about writing good songs. “Good” in our opinion of course. But I say that in the context of a lot of heavy music putting an emphasis on tones and riffs but less so on the songwriting. We are always trying to (and excited by) growing the band. We are both utterly obsessed by music as people and it’s very important to us. There are so many elements to music that we are interested in; tones, riffs, dynamics, melody...I realise I have just named the basic elements of music! The element that is perhaps the most important to me is tapping into the primal part of it. I don’t know why but I have always been drawn to that. But sometimes I feel like we are like kids in a candy store with this stuff; We are not trying to hone one particular sound but rather just gorging ourselves on the bits we love about music - and there is so much to love! 

The emptiness, the space in between notes is very important to me and it means a lot to me that you notice that. “Heaviness” is also very important to us, it is something we are drawn to. Again it’s something that is a matter of opinion but you know it when you feel it. It’s the feeling music can have on you where it’s almost too much and you kind of just have to drop to your knees.

At all times we are driven to make the music we want to make. There is no one else we are trying to impress or win over. Of course it still means a great deal to us when it does resonate with others.

MB: So, is there anything that DEAD can’t do?  I find myself constantly creating new projects to channel some particular idea or concept or sound or set of “rules” that doesn’t fit one of my currently existing projects – but you’re saying DEAD is capable of going absolutely anywhere you both want it to?  Are there areas of music that you’d love to make but just won’t fit the DEAD scenario? 

J: Of course there is plenty we can’t do. But....well I don’t see us reaching the end of what we can do anytime soon so I’m not complaining one bit! I’m a big believer in exploiting the strengths of any musician (or sound engineer when we’re recording) so, to state the obvious perhaps, whatever we do will sound like us. And so the only thing we really can’t do is sound like someone else.

I would make another album in a heartbeat with Elise Bishop or with Fire Witch or my friend Vern (who performs as Avola and is a sometimes member of DEAD) and any of those bands would make something that DEAD could not. I suppose to be a little more specific I could hark back to the old improvisation chestnut. While we are both capable of improvising I think we do approach it quite differently; my inner metronome will tend to slow down and Jace’s will tend to speed up. I think his brain is wired more as a songwriter and unlike other bands I’ve been in we never write music by just improvising and seeing what happens - we almost always start from some kind of an idea even if it’s very primal. And so sometimes I need us to sit on one riff or a long time, just for me to learn it and to experiment with it but it never enters cosmic jam territory. I think Jace kind of suffers through it for the sake of me learning how to play it!

MB: DEAD is clearly a “heavy” band, but is just as clearly not a “metal” band – it’s just as much “rock”, “punk”, “hardcore”, “sludge”, “stoner”, “prog”, and any other number of semi-meaningless genre terms.  Do you find that fitting outside of easy genre descriptors makes life easier or harder for DEAD?  Like, your genre-fluidity means you could play with almost any lineup and “fit”, but just as easily could mean you get excluded from any line-up for “not quite fitting enough” – what’s your experience?

J: It messes with my brain that the only two people who can’t hear our band from the outside is us - and we’re making the music! To me genres and descriptions are more for everyone else besides us. We honestly don’t care where it fits and are never striving to fit in anywhere. The only interest I have in it is how it might help me to promote the music. We tend to find kinship in other weirdos; bands who also cut their own path. But in some ways it’s not even about that - it’s not about trying to evade genre so much as it is about being true to yourself.  I think if you believe in what you play it comes through. 

As for how it affects our band out there in the world I can say it counts us out of around 95% of any larger international touring band support slots. It bores me to tears but for some reason bigger promoters are absolutely allergic to mixed bills and seem to strive to make lineups as homogeneous as possible. In 10 years of being a band we’ve been asked to do two of those and both promoters will never work with us again after we had the audacity to ask to be paid. It also counts us out of most festivals since again festivals are, for the most part, terrified of anything that doesn’t fit in a box. I’ll never understand this and it makes me sad.

But we book all our own tours and more underground promoters don’t care so much for that stuff so we’re not losing any sleep over it. 

It also counts us out of working with most record labels but again… see above. A band like ours is never going to be an easy sell, we can’t change that. We’re foolhardy enough to keep going though. 

For our own (possibly convoluted reasons) we tend to end up back at “metal” if we’re trying to work out where we fit.

DEAD The Brutal Metal Band - Jace and Jem
 

MB: As a drummer, you’ve always been inspirational – you have this amazing restraint that I’ve never seen in any other drummer, this incredible ability to not play.  Like, you’re amazing at smashing the living fuck out your kit, but you’ve also got this knack for shutting the fuck up, like you only hit stuff that needs to be hit, and only when it needs to be hit.  As a complete free-noise flailer myself, this measured precision continues to baffle me.  You’re like a Marie Kondo of the kit.  How do you do it?  Was it a deliberate paring down over a long time, or a conscious act of minimalism from the get go?

J: I learned to play the drums through improvising. Not in an avant garde sense but very much bass line driven music where the most important element was holding down a groove. I was lucky to have the opportunity to play with people much more accomplished than myself. Usually it was in groups of 4-6 people. I definitely over played a lot back then but I think it helped shape my playing. I spent a lot of time playing in one groove for sometimes hours on end. As far as NOT playing I think there are two distinct ways of approaching that; there is active silence and passive silence. The really good slow players, in my opinion, are the former. They are still playing the song even when they are not hitting their instrument. And this is the way I like to approach it - some players are more mathematical about their approach to minimalism and that doesn’t appeal to me. Ultimately it’s still about trying to serve the song best and not about proving how minimal I can be. 

DEAD tend to operate at both extremes; I still absolutely love playing in a more minimal realm but we also spend a lot of our time both playing a LOT of notes and generally trying to create a lot of sound for two people. I find it really hard to judge when to apply which method of playing. If I played the way I do in DEAD in a three piece I’d be overplaying but for us it’s a big part of our sound.

MB: Interesting that you mention improvisation – to me, a DEAD set always appears almost impossibly precise, like there’s absolutely no improv in it at all.  Is that the case?  Or are you both just so fucking shit hot that even when you’re pulling it out of your arse it seems like it must’ve been written that way?

J: No there’s definitely improv in there to varying degrees. Jace lets me have free reign with the setlist and it’s something I really enjoy putting together. Some songs are set in stone structure wise but within those structures we’re still playing it differently as we choose to. Other songs have parts that are loose and rely on visual cues and then often intros and outros are a bit of a free reign affair. In a way it’s a series of micro improvs hidden inside an otherwise fairly structured set. One reason it’s important to me is because it makes us pay more attention to the music when we’re playing a set - we have to both stay on our toes.

MB: Your latest album, “Raving Drooling”, went places I really did not expect it to – in particular, the synthy/soundscapey weirdness of Side B completely took me by surprise, although it absolutely fits that minimalist aesthetic I was describing earlier, and the fact that I was so taken by surprise by it now takes me by surprise.  What inspired the whole “having other people on the release” aspect of this album?  Was that always something you had in mind for the project/release?  Or did it all kinda happen organically?  Was it a matter of “these are our songs, play what we tell you” or “just go sick, do what you do, thanks”?  And should every two-piece have a go at getting other people on board?  

J: We collaborate a fair bit, we made an album and a half with BJ Morriszonkle as 3rd member. It’s one of the benefits of being a two piece that it’s very easy to work in other members. And it’s fun and rewarding for us. When we work with guests we always want them to bring themselves to the music. If we wanted something done a particular way we would do it ourselves. I don’t want to tell people what to play but I also learned a while back that guests benefit from some direction. So I usually write pretty comprehensive notes for the guests before they record their parts. I see that more as helping them understand where we are coming from. A bit like when actors are shooting scenes in a film they don’t know what the Director’s final vision is and so need some guidance. But there are times guests come up with parts completely on their own and it still goes on the album. As far as we’re concerned when we have guests they are IN the band for that moment - they just don’t have to do all the boring stuff that goes with running a band! 

MB: Do guests ever resist/ignore/disagree with your notes?  How do you deal with creativity clashes?

J: I don’t know that we’ve ever had clashes. I think the people we work with tend to be upfront and if they don’t want to play a certain part we’ve got them in mind for, they’ll say so and we respect that. Perhaps we’ve just been very lucky. 

For this album I had a pretty strong feeling of where I wanted it to go. I say feeling as opposed to “vision” because it’s something where you don’t necessarily know exactly what it’s going to be but when you get it right you feel it and you know it. Those Synths are played by Vern Avola and Joe Preston who are both excellent friends of ours and of each other and both musicians we admire greatly. We had Joe track his synth part first and then had Vern play her part in reaction to his. They are panned hard left and right so that…..I guess so that you can hear their conversation. I want to make more records with guests and I want to make more songs without guests - we are greedy and I don’t see why we can’t have both!

MB: Has someone else’s input ever changed the whole direction of a piece?  Like, someone lays a part down and you’re like “holy fuck, we should go that way!” instead of what you had initially planned?

J: Well our friend Vern (Avola) was supposed to do a short intro and outro to a song we recorded in LA with Toshi Kasai and then play over the whole song. She ended up tracking pretty lengthy parts before and after the song and we just couldn’t bring ourselves to edit them down so that one song ended up taking up a whole side of vinyl. And that’s exciting to us when that happens. BJ Morriszonkle also added some parts to the record we did with him that just bent their shape enough that again it was really exciting to hear. I mean the songs were still written by us but he just coloured them in a way that perhaps we would not. To me that’s an ideal outcome - if we’re going to have someone else in the band we want to hear them. 

Jace and Jem Doing It Themselves 

MB: You seem a really DIY kind of person, with that old school punk ethos.  How important is that ethos to your musical world – and non-musical world?  Does that attitude have any negative aspects to it? 

J: I’ve been playing and releasing music very consistently now for over 20 years and so far DIY has been the only option. I never expected anyone else to make it happen. I released my first album at 15 and in a way maybe I was at an advantage having such little understanding of how the industry worked. We made (and printed) our own posters because it was cheaper than getting someone else to do it. And of course it felt right to maintain control over as many elements as we could - even if other people could do some of it better than us. 

It was not until many years later I even discovered the term DIY. I remember me and Tommy from Fire Witch laughing so hard at the term and being so confused - who else was going to do it???!! I then realised there was this whole DIY scene and honestly was pretty cynical about it at first; it seemed to be more about an aesthetic and some fairly contradictory politics than about a genuine ethos. It took me a long time to learn that for other people their relationship with music was often quite different to my own. For me it was just always something I had to do. There was not a social aspect to it or a sense of belonging to a scene - when Fire Witch was starting out in High School it could not have been a less cool thing to do, to play in a band. We did it despite it alienating ourselves from the masses. Of course within ourselves it was the cause of a strong bond.  But along the way I met great people and begun to work with them and in many cases have formed decades-long working relationships. So as my friend Pete Hyde once said it’s really DIW (Do It With eachother) or DIT. 

There is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy around it too though. I have always been very driven when it comes to music. And so that’s meant that I have got on with it and got things done myself and not waited for anyone else to do it. Perhaps this has in turn meant that people have tended not to offer things for us? I don’t know...I’ve never played in a band that was an easy sell.  I’ve never had people beating on the door offering to book a tour or release a record.  I’m always open to that.  In fact I would love to spend less time on admin and more on the music.  But I’ve been doing it myself for so long now that I’d want to feel confident anyone else we worked with was going to do a good job.  And I can say that in the case of the other indy record labels we’ve worked with they have done a good job.  I think anyone willing to get behind our music knows it’s going to be hard work.

As for negative effects... I’m always struggling to balance the running of the business side of the label, the booking of tours etc with the fun part; playing the music. I would always like the balance to be less of the business and more of the music.  But I wouldn’t hand it over to someone else entirely either.  Yes I want to be in control but I also just don’t want to be ripped off.  The only people ripping us off is ourselves!

MB: Yeah, when you rely on yourself to do everything, it can be kinda weird trusting someone else to do something for you – you’re taking a huge risk with something you really care about.  Have you had negative experiences in that area, or is it just a fear that other people just wouldn’t do things the way you would do it?  Is it an independence borne of shitty experiences, or is it just a matter of habit? 

J: Well I’ve never expected anyone else to care as much about my music as myself. That sounds kind of negative when I say it. I don’t mean I don’t think it will mean anything to anyone else because it does and for that I’m ever grateful - it’s a great feeling when your music connects with other people. But you take your poster or album to a printer and most of the time it’s just a job to them and if they fuck it up they don’t care ‘cos you’re too small a client for them to worry about. So I’ll tend to elect to do it myself.

I’ve always been open to the idea of working with other people be they a booker, manager, label etc but it isn’t something that presents itself very much for us. Also I’ve got no interest in waiting around for these people to materialise. In general this industry is a really good one for getting royally fucked if you don’t watch out; I’ve lost count of the amount of times we’ve been ripped off by venues, promoters, record stores, pressing plants etc. I put a lot of time and care into minimizing this happening. For example when we tour overseas we can’t always print our own merch but we have made some solid contacts - people who take pride in their work and so we’re confident in working with them. Negative experiences - I’d say that’s mainly getting ripped off on the road; Venues and promoters not paying as per the contract or delaying  the payment for 6 months in the hope we’ll give up is probably the most common.

Also we used a PR firm once and I regret letting them convince us to re-word our press releases. They had a logic behind it but ultimately they were trying to re-shape us to appear as something we were not rather than to try and celebrate who we are. In hindsight that just seemed insincere and not helpful in the long term. And again we’ve had much more success doing our own PR so… I would happily hand it over to someone else if it was going to benefit us. I would rather spend that energy writing more music!

At this point I’d just like to repeat that the labels this band has worked with have all been great and never promised stuff they can’t deliver.

MB: So, given this general distrust of the industry and this insistence on doing it all yourselves, what does “community” mean to you?  Because, despite all this self-reliance and idiosyncrasy, you always seem such a community-minded chap – the recent decision to sell your entire discography to Bandcamp supporters for a pittance and then donate that all to charity, for instance, would seem a pretty community-minded act.

J: I really wanna get the answer to this one right – I’m gonna do my best! I suppose Community and Industry are not always the same thing but they are also not always exclusive. I’m aware that some people are drawn to music in the first place because of the community aspect of it, of having somewhere to belong. But for me it was 100% about the music itself and just being magnetically drawn to it – regardless of whatever scene stuff was happening around it. I’m definitely less naive than I was as a kid starting out but even back then it was clear the music industry had plenty of people that you shouldn’t trust. There are a lot of people out there offering “advice” that serves more to inflate their bank balance or ego. Or just that they are very conservative and can’t see the value in an approach to something that challenges the norm. And we’ve been ripped off and fucked over by more people I care to count and sadly some of those people have been from “DIY” or “punk” or whatever other labels they have attached to themselves.

So it has always been a matter of navigating that and deciding what compromises do you want to make; do we play this gig ‘cos it might create some more opportunities for us or do we just play that house party and have a good time? Do we play a venue that on the surface seems more corporate but ethically is actually far better than the DIY space? I can get quite cynical about that stuff because for a lot of people I guess the term DIY is more of an aesthetic or a scene than it is about fostering community. For us part of community goes back to getting OUTSIDE of our comfort zone and maybe playing to a hostile audience and winning some of them over. In a way this decision is made easy for us because we don’t have a scene we just slot into. At its best it means a place where people have equal opportunity to make whatever weird music or art they want to and resources, knowledge etc are shared but not exploited.

Again for the most part it is not so much that we “insist” on doing it ourselves but rather that we either do it ourselves or it doesn’t happen – or at least won’t happen soon enough. And your use of the word trust is important. We have people in the industry that we trust and we’ve built that trust over years and years. Four our recent album we’ve worked with labels in Austria, USA and our own label here to release it. So we can’t maintain control over every little thing and nor would we want to, we want those labels to put themselves into it too.

But we absolutely feel a part of a community that is spread across the globe. This community or family has mainly been built by playing shows together but increasingly some if it is through people discovering us and connecting with us online. I think for me community means a network of people who support each other, share some values but also respect and celebrate the differences. And the other scene bullshit like image, genre etc doesn’t matter. Sometimes you play a show with someone and even if your music doesn’t sound very similar you just click, you just know that you share a spirit and that feels great.

MB: So even now, in our locked-down plague-riddled isolation-land, this thing we call “community” still exists?

J: Absolutely it exists and is more important than ever though I’m starting to feel the strain of trying to maintain it. I think especially for those who just cannot live without music we are all pressing on and in some ways it’s affirming to know that with or without an audience this is what gives us life. Jace and I have been writing like crazy and while I miss touring more than anything we also both agreed that if we never play another show again we will happily keep writing new music even if it’s just for us.

As a band we have always relied heavily on touring to promote our records so the fact we were able to release this recent album and sell out a pressing without playing a single show...well I feel lucky we have the ability to still connect with people via the internet. I feel like such an old man saying it but back when I started making music that would just not have been possible. I think a bunch of people have actively made a decision to buy more of our merch during this time to help the DEAD machine keep ticking over and we’re very grateful for that.

I generally try not to dwell on the past but it has also been a good time for checking the archives. I discovered some old Fire Witch recordings that we’re working on mixing and mastering and will hopefully release later this year. It’s been great to connect with those two over that as that band has always meant so much to me.

I also made my first ever solo piece for a compilation Campbelle Kneale put out at the beginning of this and that felt really great to see so many people together in isolation and for me personally the challenge was great.

I think it’s going to be a challenge to maintain these communities and to look out for each other. We’ve lost a few friends to suicide during this pandemic and that is utterly heart breaking. So I think the community aspect of it is more important than ever but it’s all new territory working out how to nurture it is not straightforward. We can only try.

MB: Yup.

*moment of sad thoughtful silence*

MB: Well, thanks heaps for chatting.

J: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.  

MB: So... what's next?

J: We are working on a lot of new music right now but for once there is no rush to release it. We turn 10 years old later this year so expect some new stuff to start coming out after then.

MB: Looking forward to it.

Friday, July 10, 2020

INTERVIEW: Fucking Art: The Noisy Liberation of John Alexander Stevens.




John Alexander Stevens as Shallow - photo by Photoyunist, used with permission

Fucking Art: The Noisy Liberation of John Alexander Stevens.


If you ever frequented noise or metal gigs in Melbourne before the Plague hit, odds are that you saw John Alexander Stevens, either playing in one of his many bands, or rocking a denim miniskirt (and a pint) in the audience.  A central figure in both the music-making realm and the music-appreciation realm, he is one of the pillars of the modern local metal/noise community, and it was a genuine thrill to be able to peel back his scalp, crack open his skull, and probe the pulsating brain beneath.

We began the discussion by attempting to catalogue his vast contribution to the underground Melbourne music scene…


MB: First of all, you’ve got nearly as many projects as I do - Religious Observance, Body Horror, Colostomy Baguette?, Expurgatory, Colostomy Boner, Hadal, Nunsploitation, Shallow, Shrilling, The Church of Hysteria, The Ripening, The Newport Dolls… did I miss any?
 

JAS: Nope, that’s most of them… for now (with the exception of the small handful of songs that I’ve done just under my name, which isn’t really a project as such… well, maybe we’re all projects, right? Yeah).  Shrilling is the only one that’s properly on hiatus right now (in the sense that it’s unlikely to start up again soon, due to life getting in the way for a bunch of us in that project (with ‘life’ also meaning other competing creative endeavours)). 


MB: Are these different permutations merely a matter of different line-ups? Or are your different projects separated by concept/style/genre? 


JAS: Most of them are pretty distinct from one another, though there’s a bit of blurring. For example, Colostomy Baguette? was one of two bands (the other being She Beast, which I’m not involved in) that formed to make Religious Observance, and the approach with my solo work in Shallow informs a lot of my approaches in The Ripening and Body Horror. I’m fortunate that there’s only a few bands (Religious Observance, Expurgatory, and The Church of Hysteria) that require rehearsal in order to perform. There is also a strong point of distinction on a point of genre, and further acts tend to come out of a desire to do something different stylistically as well as with different people. 


MB: I’m interested in the meaning behind the solo project name “Shallow”.  To my mind, someone who is “shallow” is someone who is superficial, fake, kinda empty, vacuous, uninterested in conscious analysis of any sort – which is the very opposite of how you seem to me.  What does the word mean in the context of your solo work?


JAS: This name has a very straight-forward origin. I picked it around the time I was initially getting in to the Swedish black metal / depressive rock band Lifelover, and Shallow is the title of the opening track to their third album, Konkurs. Even though the sounds I set to make in that project were very far from black metal, I wanted to retain a reference to where I was focusing, intensity-wise. Also, I particularly liked how shame is dealt with in that band, which is quite counter to what you’d normally find in black metal. It’s normally full of ego and bullshit social Darwinism. This theme of shame definitely found its way into Shallow through virtue of huge buckets of self-deprecation, which was added to by virtue of the difficulty I found in making in-roads into the noise/experimental scene in Melbourne at first. 


MB: Do you consider any of them your “main” project, or are they different but equal sides of yourself? 


JAS: If I didn’t work full time and wasn’t poly, I would probably attack a bunch of the projects equally… but that just isn’t possible. Religious Observance is the big one, as it’s gained the most momentum and recognition of anything I’ve ever been involved in, and also requires quite regular rehearsal, which so many of the bedroom studio projects and improvised harsh noise groups don’t require. The Church of Hysteria is another that needs regular rehearsal, though we’ve had a bunch of hiccups along the way, most notably our drummer getting concussion and then, soon after then, having his kit stolen. Once the pandemic has eased off, I reckon this one will be ramping up again quite eagerly. Expurgatory is another one that I really wish I could devote more time to than I do, as the kind of depressive rock that we make really feels like the kind of music I’ve been wanting to make for some time. Funnily enough, although all four of us can’t meet in person due to the lockdown right now, this extra space (and time off from Religious Observance and The Church of Hysteria, who can’t really operate in isolation) has given us the opportunity to dip into writing new material for an EP down the track that I really didn’t think I’d be able to properly attack this year. The same goes for Nunsploitation, which should see an album coming out later this year.
 

MB: When you come up with something (a riff, or a texture, or a musical/sound-based idea), how do you decide what project it belongs to?  Does the project dictate the way an idea is approached, or does the idea dictate which project it’s funnelled into?  And have you ever had a project that didn’t quite seem right for any of your projects – and if so, what did you do with it? 


JAS: I’m pretty big on making stuff squarely for one project at a time, though I have wound up moving an unused take for one project in another. Also, I guess, given how little time I have, most of my output tends to wind up somewhere, even if just in the “wait until the next release” box for the project I was hoping to use it in.


MB: Speaking of “the next release”, Colostomy Baguette? just put out a split with one of my favourite ritual noise projects, Fvneral Horror.  How did that come about? 


JAS: I have a feeling Shy – the sole operator of Fvneral Horror – reached out to me a few months back to suggest some kind of split. I don’t think there was a specific group proposed by her, but either way, Colostomy Baguette? was the group that was best placed (ie: next in line) to do a release. The COVID-19 lockdown meant there was a March gig that CB? were gonna do at Nighthawks in Collingwood that had to be cancelled, and I already had some material from the London member to go toward that, so I started thinking further about how to simulate a live gig on a home made recording when none of us could meet up. So… I asked vocalist Wayne to record a few minutes of screaming, then spliced it up and loaded nearly a hundred scream-bites onto my sampler so I could insert his contributions live, with the hope that it would come across sounding pretty close to Wayne’s forceful and chaotic contributions at a gig. Pretty sure it worked. I was able to make track transitions tighter and be more precise about levels than at a gig, too. I must say that Shy was an absolute dream to work with on this, and I truly felt that the level of commitment and contributions were very even throughout the whole process. Splits can be the absolute worst, as musicians are fundamentally unreliable, but that wasn’t the case here at all. Starting with a high level of respect for the other contributors really helps, I’d say. I’m honestly really proud of what CB? and FH have made, and hopefully it’ll get the recognition it deserves over time.


MB: I loved it!  It was exactly the transcendental noise I was after.  There always seems to be an element of “noise” to your projects.  What is your attraction to noise?  


JAS: When I started making music in a consistent way in 2009, even when I was operating in rock genres, my idea was to create as much intense noise as possible in the simplest and most direct way possible. That said, anyone who’s seen my rig – even the “cut down” versions – will know that hasn’t really stayed true to the letter over time, though the idea is still there (at least, I try and remind myself of this regularly). I’ve really been into soundscapes and the texture and physicality of sound, especially in the context of metal music, so leaning into noise made lots of sense. I’ve also got a strong background in DIY art, and the accessibility of noise is absolutely liberating, especially so as it forces you to engage with so much imposter syndrome.


MB: How’s that? 


JAS: If something’s accessible, especially in a DIY kinda way, it often gets dismissed as “craft” and/or juvenilia. The former term is especially vile, as that was the term that feminine gendered forms of art often got referred to as – like, they’re just a hobby, right? Erk. Cross-stitch is fucking art. Collage is fucking art. That said, if you’re operating in these fields, it’s hard to not have that “high art” voice in the back of your brain sighing and rolling its eyes, so you gotta put energy into reminding yourself of the legitimacy of what you’re doing.


MB: Watching you play, you seem quite serious.  The dark subject matter, the dark music – again, quite serious.  And yet it feels like there is often an element of your music that is, if not outright humorous, at least a little playful.  I mean, “Colostomy Baguette?” is pretty fucking funny as a band name - and your album “Rivers of Gore” has a photo of a humorously minor hand injury as the cover artwork.  You make music with amplified meat cleavers and sex toys, which, although not necessarily “funny” is definitely indicative of a kind of playfulness.  What’s your approach to humour – or at least light-heartedness – in your music?


JAS: I think the serious side of my performance / stage presence comes down to how much I’m concentrating on what’s going on. That said, I’m definitely a fan of retaining a sense of humour to what I’m doing, because it stops me from feeling too elevated from my audience. It’s a humbling thing, and definitely an honour and privilege, when people take the time to pay attention to what you’re doing. Also, humour is an inclusive gesture. If people are laughing with you, you’re on the same page. But you don’t want to get too deep into the “I’m shit – look at the terrible art I make” maelstrom, as it’s a pretty callous way of indirectly telling the audience they have shit taste.


The humour in Colostomy Baguette? came out of the original plans for the band to be in the goregrind kinda area, which is full of dark toilet humour. I think one of us saw that phrase (with the question mark, of course) on a bit of graffiti at a venue, and we just ran with it. I doubt I’d pick a band name so quickly these days, but I’m also quite glad we didn’t dwell on it. With a name like that, people know they’re not getting anything pretty.


Oddly enough, though, the name wound up being quite profound around 2016, when a friend of mine who was dying of bowel cancer, joined the band. She lived in Canberra, so had to contribute remotely, and didn’t have much energy to record material herself, though she had a wealth of blog writing which, understandably, focussed strongly on what she was going through, and often in quite graphic detail. You can still read the blog, incidentally, at Sky Between Branches.


MB: Yeah, I remember spending hours reading her blog a few years ago, it was really full-on – even as someone who didn’t know her at all.


JAS: What’s more, she HAD a freaking colostomy bag, and wrote about how it interacted with her body when she ate, so the title of the band was, for some time, not wilfully puerile for its own sake. Elizabeth’s contributions came in the form of selections of her writing converted into a computer voice, and then played during performances. I specifically asked her if I could use the most graphic ones that focussed on the body horror she was going through, and she gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to that. She even chose the name ‘The Shitter’ as a pseudonym, and gave me permission to use all her writing this way as long as I liked (she volunteered that permission, too – I didn’t get to asking it, though I was definitely thinking about that). I’ve only recently scaled back on using her material in live performances, though I wouldn’t say it’s stopped. We had a noise wake for her after she died, which, again, was not a place I expected that project to wind up at. After all this, I almost double-take when people giggle at the name, as its meaning has shifted so much for me now.


MB: It’s been turned from a sort of random silly gross-out to the very opposite – a kind of literal “gallows humour”, a profound flicker of humyn lightness amongst the gruelling painful certainties of actual death.


JAS: Yeah, it’s almost like scatology collided with eschatology (the study of the end-times). There’s a lot to be said about societies and cultures by the way they deal with shit. This also reminds me of one of the psycho-analytical explanations of coprophilia: fundamentally, it’s about acceptance. Nothing is more human than shit, and there is rarely a more intimate gesture than dealing head-on with another person’s excrement.

John Alexander Stevens with Colostomy Baguette? - photo by Photoyunist, used with permission


MB: You seem to be very interested in “queering the metal scene”, for want of a better term – how important to you is being part of “a scene” in general, and being part of “the metal scene” in particular?  I still remember your joy at being accepted as part of the Encyclopedia Metallum – is acceptance something you’ve struggled with?  Is it “the scene” just another term for “community” or is there something more to the concept that the term “community” doesn’t quite capture? 


JAS: It’s an odd one, as I’ve felt at odds with the metal scene for quite some time – like, on the outer, and quietly listening to it in isolation, then sticking to the walls of gigs I attend. I just didn’t feel like I had the social acumen to be a part of whatever was going on in those clusters of people I saw at most shows. Also, being a transvestite engaging with a very typically macho space, I did have my guard up a bunch for many of the earlier years. So, at times, I had to wonder what I hoped to get from acceptance in that community, because that was something important to me, and as much as I hated wanting to be on that damn Encyclopedia… fuck it, I still wanted to be listed, ya know?


MB: Oh, I totally know.  When my project The Horn wasn’t allowed in because it was “too electronic”, I was so pissed off.  And then when, a couple of albums later someone else somehow got the project in there, I felt fully vindicated – as though it actually matters.  I fully get it!


JAS: It was an utterly juvenile endeavour, but the glee at seeing my name on that site was palpable. Then… every subsequent rejection made me want to sulk in my room again. “Community” is definitely the word I’d use now when talking about what I hope to get from those spaces, as that’s the word I used when I was involved with running an art space nearly a decade ago. Like, it’s more than social exchanges – it’s also creative exchanges. It’s engaging with the consumption of art as well as the making of it. And now, I guess, being in a band that has found favour in the metal community, I can be a part of that conversation in that particular creative space in a way that I couldn’t as easily before. The conversation has led to me getting in a bunch of tough back ‘n forths, especially when talking about marginal voices in the… community (was going to say “scene” there, ‘cause I think realise I use that word to refer to the spikier aspects of engaging socially with metal people).
 

MB: What do you see as the negatives of “the metal scene” traditionally, and are things getting better?  

JAS: There’s a bunch of problems in there, such as the lack of diverse representation and a broader conservatism that keeps the sound from diversifying. Like, there’s so much opposition to flex and experimentation in the genre, even though metal is one of the best for mixing things up with. Like… what genre DOESN’T go with metal? I always prefer playing metal in punk spaces, because those crowds are much better with diversity in both people and the music the like to watch (and nearly all punks I know listen to at least some metal, especially the daggier aspects), but I get where those attitudes in metal came from. Like, it’s a genre that, after it evolved from hard edged blues, found traction amongst working class communities. It wasn’t about opposing authority, but creating something bigger than yourself to escape the drudgery of your day to day. You have to remember that when running up against friction, but it’s also worth persisting, as being able to have difficult chats in metal communities is still far harder to achieve than it should be at this point in time.
 

MB: How optimistic are you that it can be fixed? 


JAS: A few years back, I would’ve said “Not very”, but I’ve met enough awesome agitators, like yourself and L, the vocalist in Expurgatory, not to mention the other members of Religious Observance, who have given me renewed faith in these powerful sounds continuing to thrive in ways that don’t just shine a light on straight cis white dudes.
 

MB: It’s really flattering that you think I’m an “awesome agitator” – I’ve always thought of myself as being one of those “straight cis white dudes” who was somehow just doing it wrong.  But it turns out I’m an “agitator”! Fuck yeah! 


JAS: Oh, you’re totally an agitator. You’re aware of the problems in the scene, you give space and due praise for people who don’t normally get attention for the art and work they do, and you don’t hold back on expressing the joy you get out of the noise(s) you make. Those things matter.


MB: If the scene is so broken, why are you so interested in being a part of it? 


JAS: At my points of peak cynicism, it was the power of the music that kept me coming back. I get life from these sounds, and so many folks in other marginal communities have had the same experiences. Even if I was hating on the people in the scene so much, the music kept me coming back.


John Alexander Stevens with Religious Observance - photo by Photoyunist, used with permission


MB: You seem to be an artist that is always simultaneously looking forward (trying to change the scene for the better, trying to push musical boundaries, etc) but also backward (your repeated use of vintage photography, iconography, etc).  What’s the appeal of repurposing/re-exposing the old?  Is it purely visual?  Or is there some kind of contrast you are trying to draw, about the past versus the present (versus the future)?  (So often when I’m looking at your album covers I find myself thinking about the hidden parts of our official histories – the repressed, the secret, the Lynchian levels below the surface.) 


JAS: Thank you for those incredibly kind words. One part of my use of old images is pragmatism, as it doesn’t get me in murky copyright water when making art that can go on streaming services like Spotify. But it also comes from working as a librarian for over a decade, and coming across an ever-growing goldmine of images that have likely remained hidden for such a long time. There’s always more to see in these images, and history tends to be written by those in power, so there’s so much that is forgotten.                                           
        

MB: Your style seems less “gross out” or “edgelord” than a lot of other projects in the noise/metal scenes and more… honest in some way?  It doesn’t feel like a giggly schoolboy’s reaction, but something deeper.  Am I on the right track here? 


JAS: I was talking about this with a muso friend recently. There’s a lot of leaning in to extremity in metal and noise for its own sake, but, for one, I don’t know I’d be able to solidly defend that kind of usage. Like, you need to own your art, and if it can’t stand up against scrutiny, well… choose fewer challenging destinations to aim for. That said, I find working with disturbing images and sounds in a way that draws out abstract elements that have their own life is much more interesting. So, for example, I look at a LOT of vintage erotic photographs, but will almost always focus in on the looks of the faces (the eyes, in particular, are very deep wells). How we make it through liminal experiences can often best be explored be surveying the spaces around the cause at hand.


MB: Do other aspects of being a librarian influence your creativity?  


JAS: I’ve often found that the library world attracts strange types, which is comforting. Even more so is that it attracts strange types with social anxiety. I’m definitely somewhere approaching the middle of the introvert / extrovert spectrum, but my more transgressive interests are definitely kept beneath the surface. Like, sure, I’m a transvestite, but I’m also not a peacock, and I reckon lots of people think I come across as reserved at first. Most of my friends tend to know enough librarians to know that we’re all somewhere on the pervert / freak spectrum, so when my sense of humour and thoughts on sex come out, they’re not too shocked.


MB: So there is a connection between these two worlds of yours – the caretaking and arrangement of texts and the caretaking and arrangement of sound. 


JAS: I would say the methodical aspect of my work is what inspires my approach more so than the content of the material I work with on weekdays. Hidden words are indeed a strong source of intrigue, and this crosses over into the sounds I find and work with. But it’s the approach that guides me, I think, and seeing as I’ve just recently made the transition from reference librarian to cataloguing librarian, this will probably become more of a severe thing.


MB: Even your project Expurgatory is named after “The Index Expurgatorius”, The Catholic Church’s list of banned books.  But you’re saying it’s the “banned” bit that interests you, more than the “book” bit?


JAS: Broadly speaking, yeah. The carrier of the information is in some ways incidental. I like the physicality of books, but my work has turned me off aestheticising that too much. There’s loads of times when I’ve had to tell people they can’t look at an old resource because of how fragile it is, and also because it’s available digitally or on microfilm (or both). People tend to hate that, but we have to save these resources for future generations, and the information is what’s fundamentally important. If you relent too much to those desires for the feel and smell of the printed objects, it becomes less a library experience and more of a sensory theme park visit.


MB: I can see that, but of course it does beg the question: if the information held inside one of these old books is already available digitally, and the physical object itself isn’t really the valuable thing, then why protect it for future generations?  Protecting something for future generations so they can also not be able to actually interact it with seems a little perverse to me.  It makes me think of how my dad would never let me play his guitar when I was a kid in case I wrecked it – and so it sits to this day, gathering dust, forever unplayed in the corner of the lounge room.  An unplayed guitar isn’t even a guitar any more – it’s a guitar-shaped sculpture.   My point being, I guess, that if the objects themselves aren’t in some way important – more than just the information they carry – why have libraries at all, and not just some online database of information?  Aren’t we fetishising / aestheticising the objects even more by not letting punters cop a little smell and feel of that real-world fragility? And then of course that makes me think of the loss of your friend / bandmate, and the real-world fragility of all existence – and makes me wonder if our short fragile lives should be spent in protective security, or lived to the (inevitably damaging) fullest.


JAS: Heh, I’m aware I can come across as something of a tyrant when I talk about rare and vulnerable library collection items, but I assure you it is rooted in the importance of providing access to the objects and the information there-in. One big reason why you hang on to the original item (like, say, the Voynich Manuscript), though restrict access to it when a more durable format is made available (like the countless print and digital reproductions of said manuscript) is to further safeguard the material from the (albeit unlikely, but nonetheless possible) likelihood of one or more of the reproductions having errors or obscuration. This happened a lot around the early days of newspaper microfilming, where the original paper was sometimes discarded after the microfilming stage was done… only for text to be lost on margin shadowing in the microfilm of several pages. If you hang on to the original, and keep it in a good state, it leaves open the opportunity of more detail being garnered further down the track by technology or researchers who desire it. Though, if you were to provide the same paper to anyone who wished to browse it in the meanwhile, regardless of the relative significance of their research, the paper would most definitely suffer greater damage and have less to offer future generations. It’s frightening how easy old newsprint can rip, even when you are being immensely careful.


At present, we are only just approaching a point where digital preservation is a thing that’s getting to a point that’s reliable. Most of us who’ve been using computers for any decent length of time (a decade or more) will know how temperamental digital storage is. Reckon a pre-2010 USB stick will still work? What about a floppy disk from the 1990s? And most of us have experienced a hard drive up and dying on us, not to mention the data on a CD-Rom flaking off. And even when we’re going ahead with lots of checks and balances and backups in place, we have to expect failure of some variety, and hanging on to the physical object is one part of that. So, it’s something of a juggling match. You keep the older object safe and secure, directing people to facsimiles where you can, then when they’re not available or prove to be insufficient, you retrieve the original. And if all you have is the original object, you offer that up for direct access. Course, there’s some exceptions – like, if what you’re looking at is a pre-1900 newspaper that has yet to be microfilmed or digitised, and you’re not wanting to look at it to add to the ever-growing pool of shared human history in a significant way, the likely damage that any handling of that material by you is going to do to it isn’t offset by enough benefit. There’s always going to be a trade-off in that way.


And, yes… I should add, I completely understand the aesthetic experience of smelling and touching old material. My partner Z will always start every engagement with an old book by smelling it. I totally get the enjoyment that one gets from engaging with significantly old carriers of knowledge. It’s like you imagine parts of their world going inside your body. I know that if I ever had the honour and privilege to access the only book in an Australian library bound in human skin (that Elizabeth got to do years ago when she started work at the National Library), I’d be itching to touch it with my naked fingers and breathe in deep.


MB: We could talk shit for ages, honestly, but we probably should wrap it up here.  John Alexander Stevens, thanks for your time.


JAS: Thanks for such an engaging conversation, Mat. It's been an utter delight.




Touch the Colostomy Baguette? and Fvneral Horror split with your naked fingers
and breathe in deep right here.