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.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

INTERVIEW: Fierce Strength: an Interview with Eko Eko Azarak

NOTE: This interview was originally published by Heathen Harvest in 2015, and has been republished here only because Heathen Harvest is no more, and I wanted people to still be able to read it.  
 Fierce Strength: an Interview with Eko Eko Azarak
Eko, eko, Azarak
Eko, eko, Zomelak
Bazabi lacha bachabe
Lamac cahi achababe
Lamac lamac Bachalyas
Cabahagy sabalyos
Lagoz atha cabyolas
Samahac atha famolas

So goes the Wiccan chant, also known as the ‘Witch’s Chant’, or the ‘Eko Eko Chant’, as popularised in the early 1900s by Gerald Gardner (widely considered to be the founder of Wicca as a proper organised religion), although parts of it (particularly the opening Eko Eko lines) had been published in various forms much earlier than his (including one version published twenty years earlier in Austin Osman Spare’s Form journal).  No-one is exactly sure what the chant means, but—like many other religious chants—it is still practised by hundreds of thousands of Wiccans the world over.  Mysterious as it is confronting, obscure in specific meaning but rich in visceral power, ‘The Witch’s Chant’ defies easy interpretation: much like Emma Albury, the sole figure behind Australian dark ritual act ‘Eko Eko Azarak’.

Like her namesake, Eko Eko Azarak is difficult to categorise, seemingly made up of polar opposites: her work is deeply mystical, and yet she displays a wary atheism; she revels in both the authenticity of true ritual, and the crowd-pleasing world of pure gimmickry; she admits to both a need for blatant attention-seeking, and a need for intense privacy.  She is just as likely to bring up the World Wrestling Federation as she is to reference elemental mysticism or the power of butoh. Before the interview, she warns me that she feels ‘really uncomfortable talking about Eko Eko Azarak’, and yet, when answers are given, they are lengthy, detailed, and effusive.

Acutely aware of her own inner contradictions, Emma begins with a disclaimer…

Emma Albury: I actually feel really uncomfortable talking about Eko Eko Azarak because I don’t really understand, or therefore know how to verbalize, what happens.  I know the language I use makes me sound like a total jerk-off hippie space cadet when I try to explain it, because it isn’t easily defined through digestible concepts.  If someone spoke to me about their music the way I’m about to, I’d consider them a shit dribbler.  Usually when people ask me to talk about my music, I tell them to just listen to it and they’ll hear what I have to say.

Heathen Harvest: I think that the jerk-off hippie space-cadet language is all we’ve got to describe these experiences, though.  When you’re raised in a scientific-industrialised culture, there’s this prevailing notion that just because something can’t be measured yet, it doesn’t exist; there’s a confusion between an absence of proof, and proof of absence.  We’re raised into this system that doesn’t give us a decent linguistic framework with which we can express our experiences, and so we end up having to use words like ‘energies’, ‘possession’, and ‘spirit’, and kind of feeling like we’re mentally deficient in some way.

EA: True.  I feel the linguistic framework we have been provided with has been misused by so many to validate a denial of privilege (i.e., ‘I manifested for the universe to grant me this gift.’ No, you didn’t. You were born into a life of white middle-class privilege, and due to this were granted opportunities which you then took.), to validate inaction and laziness (i.e., ‘The spirits will guide me to my fate when the forces are aligned.’ No, just get off your ass and quit bumming off everyone else … and rinse out your bong water. That swamp will give you lung disease.), or to validate being a total creep (i.e., someone saying ‘Oh, your energy is misaligned. Let me cleanse your chakras.’ and then attempting to put their hands down your pants to access your groin chakra or whatever.)  You know, I’m blatantly jilted by their misuse and cautious of the stigma surrounding these subjects, but I’m not a nihilist and do actually have a lot of belief in the esoteric.

HH: When I first saw you perform, you were enrobed in cloak and adorned with massive horns, standing powerful in the middle of a darkened smoky room made of mud and straw, and the audience was all around you, silent, while you formed these ritualistic soundscapes from scratch, drop by drop, with an eclectic array of instruments (drums, synth, bells, tape machine, monochordy-type thing) and many layers of voice.  The vibe was intense and concentrated, and you moved gradually, incrementally, from near silence to seriously inhuman exorcist voices—growling, shrieking, demonic, and ancient voices of fearful supremacy—and the overall feeling in the room was like we’d all just been part of some rite of passage; some unifying supernatural witnessing; some inexplicable pressure-and-release of energies beyond the mortal ken.  Is that what Eko Eko Azarak is all about?  I guess what I’m trying to ask here is: Is it about the music first, or the ritual first, or are they both one and the same?

EA: Both, for sure!  Performing music is a ritualistic act—for everyone. I guess I just consciously heighten that element of the process.

I feel the ritual of making music as Eko Eko Azarak is an evocation of something from within me.  It taps into a very grounded, strong, powerful, primordial, almost animistic element of myself.  It has a very feminine quality to it, but by that I don’t mean ‘feminine’ in the general regard of the word.  Not one of a delicate, pretty, and quaint nature. I mean ‘feminine’ as in the true essence of women.  Instinctive, intuitive, emotionally wise, resilient, and loyal, with a firm inner strength (qualities that are unfortunately often denied in women but intrinsically there).  When I evoke that state from within, I feel connected to a lineage of women (I’m not sure why only women?) tracing far back throughout history, and far into the future.  Not necessarily of my own descent, because the connection spreads broader than that.

HH: ‘Feminine’ is such a weasel word, isn’t it?  For every one of us that has been born, a woman has howled and groaned and bellowed and pushed, gone beyond their enculturation and into something primal and biological and intensely strong, earthy, and powerful, in a way that men can never quite access.  Comedian Shen Wang said, ‘Why do people say ‘grow some balls’?  Balls are weak and sensitive.  If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina.’  The actual ‘feminine’ experience is rich with blood, strength, pain, and biological being-hood.  I mean, the menstrual cycle matches the cycle of the moon, birth-rates can be correlated with storm activity … there’s something deeply elemental going on inside ladykind.

EA: For sure! I’m still in awe of the fact that when I have a close relationship with a woman, our menstrual cycles will sync. This is a phenomenon most women experience. I think it illustrates the powerful connection between women and our surroundings.

I feel extremely connected to the elements and nature, which is why I named myself Eko Eko Azarak.  It’s the first line in a Wiccan chant evoking the powers of the elements.  I feel, in a way, that’s what I somehow do when I perform as Eko Eko Azarak.  It’s very bizarre.  The ‘energy’ (for lack of a better word) I evoke has light and gentle elements to it, and there is also a beauty in the truth of the darkness and violence within it.  None of it resonates as negative or bad, because there is an honesty to the bleakness, just as in nature. I’m sure the feeling is something most would consider supernatural (but that term has too much stigma for my liking) as I’m tapping into something within myself to connect with something that feels far bigger than me (not ‘God’—I’m an atheist).  I’m then somehow able to release this as an energy out into the audience.  I guess the music and my body language acts as a vessel to carry the expression of that energy (It’s fucking hippie wank, but I honestly don’t know how else to describe it).  I do wonder if many other musicians experience this.

Unfortunately I haven’t yet been able to harness control over this energy.  It’s not a switch or mode I can just shift into. There are a number of variable factors that need to align before I’m able to tap into that place within myself—if I’ve been too busy or stressed and am therefore not grounded, or if my mind is elsewhere.  I struggle to reach that place if I’m having lots of technical difficulties, which happens a lot because I don’t have the musical skills or equipment to create these epic sonic pieces my mind conjures.  I know when I’ve tapped into it because I feel possessed, yet at the same time very grounded.  I often finish sets and can’t remember anything I’ve just done.  I need to be left alone for a bit once I’ve finished, to allow myself to come back to ‘reality’.  Saying that, I do appreciate it when people come up and tell me they enjoyed the set, because that’s why I’m doing it: to share it with people and to affect them in a positive way.  But I’m just unable to have conversations with anyone for a bit.

HH: Is the ritual more powerful because it’s in a room full of witnesses, or is it a ‘band’ playing ‘to’ an ‘audience’?  Is the audience part of the ritual, or watching the ritual, or, again, do you think it’s one and the same?

EA: The ‘audience’ is an essential element in the ritual.  I get nervous when I perform in front of people and the adrenaline heightens my senses and makes it easier for me to tap into these energies I’ve discussed.  For a digestible description of Eko Eko Azarak, I refer to what I do as a ‘performance’, but I have experience in performance and what I do with Eko Eko Azarak doesn’t suit the conventional understanding of the term.  Because—and I admit this sounds pretentious—if I’m present in the moment and the ritual is taking effect, I feel like I’m no longer ‘performing’.  It’s not an ‘act’, and so it is no longer delivered ‘to’ an audience, but envelops them in the energy (for lack of better word) that is intensified in the space.  I think a lot of musicians feel this way, but during a good set I feel like the energy between the audience and I is this growing, swelling, pulsating, beautiful amoeba.  That amoeba of beautiful energy is the idol we all devote the ritual of making music to.  The audience partakes in the ritual whether they intend to or not.  I feed off their energy, but I’m also generating it from my own sources and sending it back out to them.  I think this is why the audience seems quite invigorated after successful sets (either that, or because I scream and blast their faces off).  I hate it when I can’t tap into that place within me, or whatever external energies I seem to connect with in this ritual.  Because then it does feel like an act, a performance, or a farce—so hollow and meaningless—and I want to apologise to the audience for that.  It feels like a ‘show’ rather than some unexplained harnessing of power, truth, or primordial regression shared within the space that I’ve somehow managed to draw from within myself and from an external force for a brief moment in time.  That’s what I want to share with the ‘audience’, because I want them to feel whatever phenomenon I’m experiencing within and for themselves.

HH: Before Eko Eko Azarak you were part of Leopard Leg, a band which numbered members in the double figures, mostly playing percussion, all pounding rhythms, repeated chants, and ritualistic vibe-generation.  How long have you been exploring these ritualistic approaches to music? 

EA: Ha!  You’ve done your research!  Yeah, Leopard Leg was rad.  We were pretty hit-and-miss (we did some terrible performances/recordings and some amazing ones too), but we were sometimes able to collectively tap into this force I’ve been discussing.  They were only brief moments and more dispersed, so it didn’t feel as immense within me as it does with Eko Eko Azarak, but it was there.  The ‘noise scene’ was very much a cock fight back then, and most of us had never been in a band before, so Leopard Leg was a collective we felt safe within—to delve into that world and gradually build confidence.  And Leopard Leg was a posse of really excellent women.  It was something special, but maybe everyone thinks that about their band … unless they’ve had a brutal breakup and then there’s only spittin’ words left.

I’ve played musical instruments and studied music all my life, but I’ve never been one to conform and didn’t want to practice scales and compose pieces according to the rules.  So I never actually became any good at it.  I’m not a musician, I’m a fucking hack!  I don’t know what I’m doing, but I do love throwing away whatever I’ve learned about music (though I’m sure some subconscious residue sticks) and non-verbally communicating through music in whatever munted form it takes.

After Leopard Leg in the UK, I moved to Berlin and played in a duo called Ankoku No Oto with Holly Herndon (who is now ruling that high-brow experimental electronic scene in the U.S.  She’s bitchin’, and I’m heaps proud of her).  ‘Ankoku No Oto’ roughly translates to ‘the sound of darkness’.  The name was a bit of a homage to ‘Ankoku No Butoh’ (‘the dance of darkness’), so yes, I was dipping my toes in beautifully grim places much like now.

Incidentally, both bands tapped into the occult for inspiration: witch-burning, harpies, spirits.  I really don’t know why the occult is a recurring theme.  Eko Eko Azarak uses less direct references in the music itself, but occult visuals are implemented in the performances.  I guess it’s because in all musical incarnations we were tapping into something unexplained, and the only way for us to interpret that was to present it through already existing beliefs in mysticism.  I don’t know, it was never really discussed.

But I’ve always had an interest in the occult, because of course there is more out there than human senses are able to detect or comprehend.  I mean, that’s not hocus pocus, that’s a scientific fact … watch any documentary on astrophysics!  And I’m fascinated by what those unknown things may be, and the ways in which humans attempt to harness the ability to experience such things.  Eko Eko Azarak is a practice in exactly that, but I don’t try to question whatever it is I’m tapping into, because it almost feels like it isn’t useful to dissect it.  I’ll never have the answer defining what it is, because I’m not sure such definitions exist.  I think it is just best felt and shared.

Like Leopard Leg, Ankoku No Oto was hit-and-miss (we tried to cram too many ideas into single pieces and we didn’t have the technical aptitude to execute our sonic visions), but there was something really unique there. We had a heartfelt connection with one another, and I feel it served as an important stepping stone in my personal musical evolution.

HH: From Leopard Leg and Ankoku No Oto, you became a solo project.  What precipitated the formation of Eko Eko Azarak?  When and why did it become a ‘thing’?

EA: After Berlin, I moved to Melbourne and often found myself as a guest musician, jamming with lots of different people, and I felt confident being part of a band.  But I’m a masochist and always need to challenge myself.  I was terrified of playing solo.  So of course I had to do it.  That’s how Eko Eko Azarak was born.  My first ever gig was at Stutter (an experimental night regularly held in Melbourne), and it was the worst!  I still shudder thinking about it.  Everything that could go wrong, went wrong.  It was so bad that everyone felt too sorry for me to heckle and instead started cheering me on, shouting things like ‘you can do it!’.  It was so humiliating, but I knew I couldn’t possibly ever play a worse set than that, so it gave me some kind of warped confidence to keep going and continue on with the project.  A few sets later, I found my mojo.

After I played solo for a couple of years I missed the collaborative approach to music-making and the unique relationships you form with people in your band.  So Gurner (with Sharryn Koppens [Dick Threats] and Fjorn Butler [Oranj Punjabi / N3 Warriors]) was formed, and it’s now one of the most important aspects of my life.  Making music with those two and the relationship we share is the shit that makes life worth living.  I feel a lot more pressure with Eko Eko Azarak.  I hold sole responsibility for how it does (or doesn’t) affect people, and it’s such an intense project that there’s a lot of pressure placed upon myself to pull it off.  Pressure mainly from myself, but audiences have expectations too.  I can’t always pull it off, and that’s all on me—and that sucks!  I can relax a lot more in a band knowing that I can ebb and flow, and together we can create a sonic landscape.  I do thrive on the high of committing to your own vision and pulling off the desired effect though.  I dig playing solo and in bands, and would like to continue doing both.

HH: So far, we haven’t touched on the actual music of Eko Eko Azarak.  It’s built up in layers with loop pedals, but can be wildly eclectic, ranging from John Carpenter-style synth-tastic horror soundtracks, to Goblin-esque pieces of abstract giallo, to Druidic-sounding free-folk dirges.  What are your instruments / sound sources / processes?

EA: Oh, I like those comparisons! Thanks!  I listen to a really diverse range of music (while still admittedly being a total music snob), but I don’t think there’s any direct influences on my music creations. I guess it’s just a subconscious witch’s brew of genres bubbling away inside of me. The only exception to this was an ode I wrote to Burzum entitled ‘I’d Love You More if You Weren’t a National Socialist’.  Varg Vikernes is one of my all-time favourite musicians (and we share the same birthday), but I had to quit listening to him because I felt I couldn’t align myself with the rhetoric that he was espousing.  I feel his racist beliefs are disseminated through his art, unlike other artists whose personal beliefs or lifestyle choices I may not agree with but are kept isolated from their output which I am digesting and supporting.  I have a similar relationship with many misogynist and homophobic hip-hop artists who I love. I just determine my support on a case-by-case basis in consideration of where my boundaries lie.  There’s definitely a questionable grey area I struggle with, but other times it’s clear that I need to take a stance.  So yeah, I guess I wrote Burzum a break-up song.  (laughs)  That’s the only piece I’ve ever written with any set intention or vision.  Every other song involves me just sitting down, trying to clear my head, and letting whatever happens happen—just adding layer upon layer while rarely editing.

As far as the techs go … you know, that’s a tough one because the instruments change every time.  I collect an array of instruments to misuse.  There’s only a few instruments I actually know how to play, but that doesn’t stop me from utilising all the others.  The only thing that is constant is my loop pedal and the delay on my vocals.  I don’t use any other effects on my vocals. People think I use a pitch shifter, but I don’t.  I just have phantom balls so I can hit those deep notes while also being able to squeal high like a piggie.  I used a vocoder for a bit, but it was fucking with my signal flow and I kept feeding back like a motherfucker.  I tried a few different chain formations with it but without much luck.  It was never intended to be a main feature so I ended up ditching it.

HH: I’ve seen you play encased in a cocoon filled with branches and sticks; I’ve seen you with bullhorns and druidic robes; I’ve seen you play from within a white pyramid projected with images of flickering fire.  How important is the visual aspect of Eko Eko Azarak?  Not just in ‘how it looks’, but in creating a spectacle, a psychopompic manifestation of some sort?  And where is the line between creating a ‘show’, and having a ‘gimmick’?

EA: I think Eko Eko Azarak is gimmicky!  And I’m down with that.  I’m not pretentious enough to deny the appeal of gimmicks.  I mean, 80’s wrestlers like WWF’s ‘Macho ManRandy Savage and G.L.O.W.‘s ‘Heavy Metal Sisters‘ (in fact the music genre heavy metal in general), John Water‘s ‘Odorama‘ … these things are awesome!  People consider gimmicks to be low-brow and cheap.  I love low-brow and cheap!  Perhaps gimmicks are viewed as insincere and without integrity.  Well, I think that’s bollocks because every corpse-painted Norwegian dude, tromping through snow-buried forests, freezing his leather-harnessed nipples off, must really fucking mean it!  Gimmicks are about increasing appeal, making things stand out a bit more, creating something a little more unique.

There’s a lot of top-notch music in Melbourne, and I’m not that crash-hot a musician, so I wanted to give people something more than what’s already on tap.  I want people to have a real ‘experience’ when they see me live.  Take them to another realm, or tap into unfamiliar or rarely visited places within themselves.  My gimmicks aren’t intended to be funny or even fun like most are (hey, if people find them fun, that’s cool too), but they are sincere attempts to attract people, drawing them in and making them more open to the experience.  Besides, surely no one wants to just watch me fumbling around with my instruments.  That’s boring.  One of my bachelor degrees is in Theatre Arts and although I hate most theatre, I do appreciate the power of its elements (costumes, sets, props, lighting, multimedia, etc.) in effectively creating an atmosphere and drawing people into a moment.  I actually want to extend these elements a lot further, but I don’t have the money or resources to turn my visions into a reality just yet.

HH: It’s almost like it’s only ‘gimmicky’ if the ritual as a whole isn’t genuine; on one of those nights when you just can’t ‘feel it’, your props are just props, but on a night when you’re fully transcendent, your props are powerful spiritual allegories, as ‘real’ as any wand, totem, Ouija Board, or Tarot deck.  It’s like Communion or something—those wine and crackers can be just gimmicks, or they can be the actual blood and body of God.

EA: Right on.

HH: There’s a tape out through Sabbatical and a couple of live bits and pieces around the internet—is that all the Eko Eko Azarak material that we’ve got?  Are there any more recordings ferreted around that may see the light of day (I know I’ve got an audio recording of the pyramid performance somewhere)?  How important is documentation when it comes to Eko Eko Azarak?  Is capturing the moment ever as important as the actual moment itself?

EA: Yeah, that’s about it for now. I don’t like doing recordings and I’m not really interested in documentation.  I’d really rather people just come to see me play live.  I’m aware that a certain energy is created when I’m playing and am able to tap into that place I’ve discussed.  It can be felt by the audience; it’s exchanged by them and rises in the space.  You can’t capture that in a recording and creating that feeling in the audience is my main desire, so what’s the point?  I’m not trying to make money or a name for myself, so I don’t give a toot about getting my name out there.  I’m not a good musician, and when I play live, no one seems to give a shit because it’s about the experience.  But in recordings, all the out-of-tune, out-of-time bung bits are captured, and it sounds like dogs’ balls.  Plus the pieces never sound as epic as they do in my head, so it’s always underwhelming, but people are supportive and keep asking me to do releases.  Every now and then I surrender because I’m honoured that people want to listen to my music, and I swallow my pride and share something with them.  I’m sure I’ll do more in the future—probably sooner than later because people are bugging me for stuff, which is sweet.

HH: So Eko Eko Azarak isn’t dead?

EA: No, not dead.  She’s a zombie and she will rise again and again.  I just decided on some time out about a year ago for a few reasons.  I found myself going through a period where I was more frequently going through the motions; there were less ‘evocations’, and I couldn’t stand it anymore.  When I can’t tap into that place, I walk off the stage (or whatever space I’m performing in) feeling totally gutted.  I feel like con-artist faux witch doctor.  I hate it after those performances when people tell me they enjoyed it because I feel like I’ve deceived them, because they’ve bought the ‘act’, and also because I couldn’t create what I intended to share with them, and it feels pointless and insincere.

When I do these performances I make myself really vulnerable. You know, there’s no rock-god posturing going down.  I dig deep and wrench it out.  So, another aspect that I struggled with is that I don’t always feel like being that vulnerable in front of a group of people.  Sometimes I’m in a more introverted mood and so then it’s like, ‘right, do I metaphorically spew myself raw, or do I not dig to that place and then feel like a fucking farce?’  In those cases, I want to do justice to whatever it is I evoke with Eko Eko Azarak, and I want to give the people what they want, so I usually try to evoke that place of truth, even if I’m not in the mood.  You can’t force this shit (well, at least, I can’t), so if I’m not in the right state to succeed, I can’t reach it, and by the end of the set I feel totally gross.  At times like that I even have moments during the performances where it feels so disingenuous and I just want it to end.  It’s horrible!  I mean, it’s not like genocide or anything (you have to keep things in perspective), but forcing myself to be that vulnerable—raw as fuck, stripping down ego and shields—while then being unable to tap into that place of strength just leaves me feeling vulnerable and let down.  It does make me very emotional in a negative way.  Particularly because in those cases I’m often literally under a spotlight!

But on the flip-side, when I do tap into that space and I can tell the crowd is resonating on that energy too, and it fills the space, fuck, that feels immense!  I feel like a giant ball of power and fierce strength.  And my intention is to send that out into the audience so it triggers that same feeling within each individual.  I mean, it’s a shared mass phenomenon that I’ve never experienced from any other source.  I want more of that and it seems like others do too.

HH: Absolutely!  Thanks heaps for your time, it means a lot.

EA: No, seriously, thank you! That’s from the heart, man. Your support, and the fact that you get something out of Eko Eko Azarak, gives purpose to what I do. So, thanks.