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.


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