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.