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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A succession of many empires that rise and fall

Extremely massive and wonderful essential reading with David Tibet by Pitchfork. I'm reprinting it completely here, copyright and stuff by Brandon Stosuy:

Pitchfork: Black Ships Ate the Sky took quite some time to complete. That, along with the number of collaborators, gives it the air of a magnum opus. Did you intend to for it be the biggest statement of your career?

David Tibet: Well, no I didn't. It was a really important album for me, and like a lot of Current 93 albums, it starts off with a conceptual idea, which is sometimes just a phrase. So with this album the phrase came to me, “Black Ships Ate the Sky”, then I started having a lot of very intense dreams and a lot of text would come in. It's difficult to explain-- it sort of falls into my head. I get the sensation that a hole, or like a slit, opens in the top of my skull, and colors and words started falling in. It happened before with other records or sometimes paintings, but this time it was particularly intense, and it just kept on pouring in with just so much material. The whole idea, it was revealed to me.

I don't mean that in a religious or pseudo-religious sense. If I say it came to me in a vision it sounds like I'm being really pompous-- I don't want it to sound like that. Bill Fay said to me, "Do you mean stream of consciousness?" Perhaps it's that, but it was very visual. I saw colors. Sometimes I get really bad migraines with big hallucinatory patterns, so there's that as well. It was a personal experience. What I mean is I got the phrase and I didn't quite understand its significance-- the explanations came afterwards.

This particular song "Idumæa" was really haunting me-- it had been for several years-- and I just woke up and I thought, "I'm going to start asking the people who I most admire, who are artists and singers and friends of mine, I'm going to ask them to be on this and to interpret this song because this song is one of the keys to Black Ships." I wasn't really sure why or how that was the case, but I just knew that it was. So I just asked everyone-- just really all my friends. The only person I asked who couldn't do it was Bill Fay. He's only just got back into being involved with music and he's got a lot on and he's got things in his own personal life that take time up.

Black Ships could've just been me. It could've just been me with one other person and it would've been as important to me. It would've been the same conceptual statement. But on this one it just happened that I invited all my friends and it got bigger and bigger. At the moment it's the definitive statement of Current 93, but the next album will also be another definitive statement.

Pitchfork: Did you direct the participants how to sing "Idumæa" or did just give them the lyrics and tell them to go crazy with it?

DT: Well, it was written by Charles Wesley. His brother, John, helped found Methodism. I went into the studio with Michael Cashmore. He had the melody; he adapted the melody onto guitar. Then we went in with Marc Almond. That was the first one we did-- so Marc did a couple takes. Then what we did, was, we sent all the artists that we wanted to do it a recording of either just Michael doing it with a copy of the words, or if they said, "Well, could you give us more of an idea of how it's sung, how you see it being sung," we might send them the version Marc did.

But there were no instructions whatsoever. I just said, please interpret this as you feel it should be interpreted. When I got the CD back from them, or the files, that was the first time I heard it, and the first time I knew what it would be like.

The interesting thing about them all is that, you know, it's not their words-- and it may be words that they agree or disagree with or have no feeling about, but everyone's version really sounds as if they sat down and thought, "I'd really like to cover that." There's no sense that they all sound the same.

Pitchfork: Did your split 10" with Om come from this same period?

DT: Yes, the track that's on the split with Om, Inerrant Rays of Infallible Sun (Blackship Shrinebuilder), is part of the sessions of Black Ships. When Steve Stapleton and I finished mixing the album-- on the finished album there're 21 tracks and if you include the Om track that's 22, although it's not on the album-- but we had about 90 separate mixes of all the pieces. There are a few that are just huge. There are lots of tracks we didn't include-- more material by Antony that didn't end up on the final album, other stuff by me singing with music by Michael Cashmore, music by Ben Chasny.

I was talking to Ben about the music that we both liked-- so we were talking about metal or rock, hard rock, heavy rock, and so on. I was talking about a lot of the groups that are popular now like Meshuggah and Nile; I was saying I really love the music, but I find this style of singing-- which I guess is originally from black metal, you know [Tibet does a black metal voice] -- I can understand why they do it and I appreciate it, but I don't like it because I can't hear the words and to me it seems just a generic style of singing. I guess people can say that about the way Robert Plant and Ronnie James Dio sing, except that I really like that style, and I can hear the lyrics.

I was talking about how I really like long, repetitive, hypnotic, building pieces and then I started talking about metal with Ben and about the group Yes, who I've always loved, and Ben said, "Whoa, do you know this group, Om?" And I said, "No, I've not heard of them." He said, "Well, I think you'd like them." He told me they were connected to this band Sleep and asked if I'd heard of them. I went, "Well, I know the name, but you know, I don't know the music." So I went out in San Francisco and I bought the Om first album. I looked at the first track -- 21 minutes -- and after one minute I had this sense of huge disappointment that the track was only 21 minutes long. I just thought, "This is so stunning, so amazing.”

Pitchfork: Speaking of your connection to younger musicians: In your Durtro updates you've championed Six Organs, Will Oldham, and Joanna Newsom. How did you first get connected to freak folk and the doom and psych stuff? You and Ben seem to have an especially strong alliance.

DT: Well, Om, I've told you about-- that was absolutely thanks to Ben. That's also how I got connected with Stephen O'Malley from Sunn 0))-- we're working together. Oddly enough, when Ben started many years ago, he sent me an acetate of his first record. I think he did 10, and he sent one to me. It never got to me, so I didn't hear it for several years. He was a big Current 93 fan-- I think he mentioned that in an interview on Pitchfork with you. We got in touch, just got on really well, and I asked him if he'd want to start playing in Current and doing stuff together-- and he did that.

Pitchfork: When I interviewed Ben he mentioned that you sent him a bottle of Current 93. Do you own a distillery?

DT: [Laughs] There's an absinthe company in Germany and the guy who runs it used to be a big Current 93 fan. He wrote to me and asked if I'd be interested in designing a label for his new range of absinthe. I said, yeah, I'd really like to, why don't we do a special edition of, say, 93 or 100 copies with a CD with an unreleased track done especially for it. That developed into a box with a bottle of absinthe and with my label, which was signed by me. There were two absinthe glasses and an absinthe spoon and the CD. So there were 93 of those, and Ben got sent one of those. There's a charity I work with called the John Bradburne Memorial Society, a leprosy mission in Zimbabwe. I said I'd do it for the absinthe company if they made a donation-- my payment-- to the society and also put in some blurb about the society. So they did.

Pitchfork: [Laughs] Okay, back to the record. Lyrically, there's a lot of talk of Caesar, Rome, judgment, dissolution, destroyers/destruction, sinking boats, and ships. Certain parts make me think of George Bush and U.S colonialism. Is the record a critique of top-heavy modern society? Or is it some sort of internal Armageddon?

DT: It's absolutely nothing to do with George Bush. George Bush is a Caesar and a Pharaoh [but] all leaders are. We're all Pharaohs in our hearts as well. It's not a comment on American politics, which seems to obsess so many people now. And it's not a comment on U.S. colonialism. U.S. colonialism is just one in a succession of many empires that rise and fall. I don't know that's it's any worse or any better than any other empire. I just don't find America that important. I like America a lot and I like Americans a lot and I really enjoy being there and I love San Francisco, but Black Ships Ate the Skies is nothing to do with that.

Black Ships Ate the Skies is a reflection of my belief that we're living in the end times. "Black ships eat the sky”: These are the signs of the rising of Anti-Christ, as black ships enter our horizon-- literally and metaphorically.

The constant repetition of "Idumæa" is a reminder that after this period we're going through, there will be judgment. It's a catalogue of my own obsessions, just as Current's always been: My own questioning, my fears, my doubts, my hopes.

I'm aware that a lot of people will see it, perhaps, as something else, but all I know about is myself, and I don't even know very much about that. This is just how I see things. I'm not trying to evangelize. I don't really care what people think of it, whether they think my view of things is correct or insane or heretical, this is just how I see things and that's how it is.

Pitchfork: The album moves toward a really harrowing finale. I'm thinking of "Black Ships Were Sinking/Idumæa" and onward. The title track is almost industrial metal. How carefully did you organize this? Was it intentional?

DT: I'm always aware of the order the songs go in. I mean, with some of the "Idumæa" we needed to think of how that would work in terms of placement. The title track was always the end track, because that's when the ships are there, they're basically in your garden or over your garden-- they've come over the church. Specifically, it's the church where Jhonn Balance is buried-- although, actually, he was cremated, but the way I see it he has been buried in that church.

Pitchfork: Did the death of Jhonn Balance influence Black Ships?

DT: Not in any conscious way. There's that line that refers to him in the title track: "I would have never buried my friends/ And prayed for their souls/ In reddening churches." That's about Balance.

I really do miss him, and I think about him a lot. The sadness of his death and the sadness of the phone call we got saying he was dead was a real shock to us all, but was not a surprise to any of us. He had gotten worse and worse; his alcoholism was incredibly extreme. The times when he was lucid and when you could speak to him or meet up with him became very few and far between. We didn't see each other much, we didn't speak much, you know, sometimes you'd get e-mails, which make no sense because...he was drunk. And then you'd get e-mails that make a lot of sense because he was sobering up and trying to work out where he was and who he was but you know, he just couldn't. The last time I spoke to him on the phone I said, “Please, please stop, you are going to kill yourself. You'll be dead soon.”

He was talented and lovely and just a really dear friend and a great person in any way I can think of, but he had no confidence. He would say, “Well, if I'm not drinking, you'll find me boring,” and of course it wasn't true. It was a tragedy just as anyone's death in those circumstances is a tragedy. When I got the phone call-- it was on my mobile-- and I looked at the name of who was ringing and I just knew what it was. It was a friend and he said, “Oh, David,” and I said, “Is Balance dead?,” and he said, “Yeah, yeah.”

Pitchfork: There's a moment on Black Ships-- "Christ made a dance/ Which turned into a trance." Did you convert to Christianity?

DT: Well, I was always interested in religion. My main interest was initially Christianity, but I was also interested in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism because that's what I was growing up around [in Malaysia]. I used to spend a lot of time going to Hindu temples and Chinese temples, but from a very early age I was interested in the Bible and in New Testament apocrypha, and also in eschatological and apocalyptic writings. I studied Buddhism for a long time but, yeah, if people ask me what I am now, I'm Christian.

I was talking to a good friend of mine who's a professor of theology. She's Christian as well. I think she's on discussion groups and somebody said, "Wow, it's really strange some of the things Tibet says live, they sound really Christian." And I said to her, I don't understand that-- everything from Thunder Perfect Mind has been pretty overtly Christian to me. I mean sometimes the references are obscure, but nonetheless, they seem to be obviously Christian. And she said, "People think you're being ironic." They think I'm being ironic for 13 years? That would exhaust even the world’s greatest ironist.

Pitchfork: There are these moments of waking up on Black Ships-- As if what we're getting is dream language. It made me think of Finnegans Wake.

DT: Have you ever read Finnegans Wake?

Pitchfork: Yes, though I've read it in parts-- I'll read 25 pages and then put it down and pick it up later and read 25 more....

DT: That's what I did. I really love the idea of it, but I just think it's absolutely unreadable...just seems such a waste really. I like space. I like linear simple things with lots of spaces, so then I feel like I can breathe. I feel very claustrophobic when I'm surrounded by anything that is taking up all the space, maybe that's eating all the sky.

I really admire James Joyce as a person, though to be honest, I've never found his work as interesting as I'd hoped it would be. Same with Ulysses. I just found it very difficult and boring, though I love the end soliloquy, the Molly Bloom...

Pitchfork: The whole "yes I said yes I will yes..."

DT: Yes, yes. I've read that many times-- I'd be much happier if Ulysses was just that.

Pitchfork: So with Ghost Story Press then, are you more or less releasing the books you like to read?

DT: Yeah-- they were books... or in some cases they were books that I would liked to have read, but they were so rare, that I couldn't find a copy. So I thought, well, perhaps there are other people who will be in the same situation. That's how it started. I think that, again, like the music, and like everything, it just comes becomes I'm an enthusiast. I'm really passionate and also very focused and will expend a great deal of energy to make that connection very powerful.

Pitchfork: I've heard that you're learning Coptic. What led you to that?

DT: Well, I was doing New Testament Greek and-- I was always very fond of the Gospel of Thomas, which was written originally in the Greek, but the Greek original has more or less disappeared apart from a few fragments. The Gospel of Thomas is in Coptic, and I loved it so much that I decided I would start to learn Coptic, so I could read it in the original. All the Nag Hammadi material’s in Coptic, too, so there's a huge amount there. I spend a lot of time doing Coptic. Before I go to bed I'll do Coptic and I'll do it in the morning and whenever I've got any spare time.

Pitchfork: On Black Ships, your vocal phrasing strikes me as especially assured. Do you think you've refined your approach? There are certainly more pregnant pauses.

DT: I guess it has purely by the fact that I've carried on doing it-- it’s not a conscious thing. From my perspective, I'm singing. Some people would say, “Oh, you're reciting poetry,” and I understand what they're saying, but to me I'm singing. I'm aware I've got a fairly-- not so much a limited vocal range, because I've actually got a wide vocal range, but I can't shift between them easily. From the beginning, when I was aware that I wanted to start singing or whatever we'll call it, I was aware of the limitations of my voice and I developed a way to make myself at ease with it, to make me feel like it was a powerful instrument by doing other things that people tend not to do. I don't know if I'm more comfortable with my voice now, but I am more confident in what I want to say.

Pitchfork: For a while you were no longer going by David Tibet-- you were suddenly David Michael. Why?

DT: Michael is my middle name. That was a strange period. I started getting letters from people saying, "Tibet says this," or "Tibet says you are this or you are that" and I got-- not sick of these comments, but sick of the way we think we know someone else [when] we don't even know ourselves. We're all absolutely unknowable. The name itself is a mask.

I woke up and thought: I'm sick of people seeing this continuity between what I am now and what I did then. I wanted to make the point, to myself more than anybody else, that continuity is correctible and often invalid. There is something that remains the same-- maybe that's the soul-- but the idea that it's the same actor all the time is useful only if we remember that actors wear masks. The Tibet who made one record isn't necessarily the Tibet that is writing this [new] record or talking to you on the phone. I got sick of being pigeonholed, perhaps by myself, perhaps by my history.

It really felt great to take off that mask and write about oneself more objectively, as objective as one can ever be about as something as subjective as oneself.

Pitchfork: Do you feel that you have particularly intense fans?

DT: I do feel that. I like that. As I've told you before, I myself am one of those people. I used to joke with Shirley Collins that, "Oh, it's your stalker." [Laughs] I get along really well with Shirley, but I'm really passionate about things and I find it touching that people are passionate about my work.

At the same time, I always find it a little strange that they are passionate, because the references in my songs or words are so personal and relating to things that really only I know about and really a very close circle of people who have known me for a long time, so I sort of think, “How can anyone else know what I'm going on about, where's their link to it?” But then my wife point out, I feel the same about other artists, where the work is so personal but nonetheless I feel that I'm getting an insight into their world. So, I do relate to them.

Pitchfork: Yeah, I know you adore Shirley Collins. What's it like to have her contributing to your productions?

DT: I was introduced to her music by Edwin Pouncey, Savage Pencil, a longtime friend of mine. I fell in love straightaway. She's one of the great geniuses of song. She's overwhelmingly genuine, there's no artifice in her, she's absolutely-- just a completely pure person.

It’s strange to meet to someone, who, of course, I idolized so much, who is so down to earth and human. She's really enriched my life with her honesty and her friendship.

I think there's a feeling that I'm a big folk fan, which I'm really not-- I don't really like folk music very much at all. Shirley Collins I absolutely idolize, Ann Briggs is a great artist, and Mellow Candle were amazing, but folk rock often feels very generic. Shirley, to me, transcends folk.

I [also] love Arthur Doyle and I love the idea of Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, but I really don't like jazz. I tried really hard to like jazz -- you know, I bought lots of all the classic jazz albums-- but it just drives me insane. A Love Supreme by John Coltrane, I listened to it over and over again and the only bit I liked on it was when he sings "a love supreme, a love supreme." With Ayler, the only albums I really like are the really late ones where he has his wife singing, which Ayler fans tend to not to like. And I'm not liking them to be an anti-hip snob, it's purely because I think her singing is tempering the unbearable jazz squawking-- I really don't get it. It’s just so abrasive.

Pitchfork: Finally, I have a question a friend of mine supplied. Someone at her college had a radio show called “Songs of the Apocalypse”, and she was curious what would be on your show, if you put together something called “Songs of the Apocalypse”.

DT: Funny, instead of the obvious choices, the song that immediately comes to mind is "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes; that and “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” by the Shangri La's. I love girl groups-- I particularly love Ronnie Spector-- and the idea of apocalypse, the original Greek word meaning, “unveiling,” is where everything is revealed. Now, of course, it has the sense of Armageddon and total destruction, but I still look at it as a total unveiling, the taking off of all masks, and the return, perhaps after the Armageddon, to that state of pristine purity and innocence and love, which is the natural human condition.

When I listen to "Be My Baby" I hear such yearnings and such love and such beauty-- that absolutely simple, uncynical love that can and should exist between people-- it makes me think of everything [being] stripped away. It's an absolutely naked, heartbreaking plea for love.

“Walking in the Sand”, of course, has a darker sense to it; that sense of finality and ending which is also apocalyptic-- although, again, in contemporary culture there's this confusion between apocalypse and Armageddon. But if we're referring to the unveiling of all the masks and lies and deceits and clothes that the soul has covered itself with, it has to be "Be My Baby".

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