Extreme States Of Consciousness: Cult Of Youth Interviewed
, November 1st, 2012 04:17
Cult Of Youth's Love Will Prevail, recorded solo in Sean Ragon's home studio, channels European and American folk musics and chaos magic. He speaks to Pavel Godfrey about recording, religion and gnostic states
If Cult of Youth has a base of operations, it is a homemade studio in the back of Heaven Street, Sean Ragon's tiny and expertly curated Brooklyn record store. It faces northwest towards the roaring traffic of Flushing Avenue, a major industrial thoroughfare dividing the "art" and "music" hub of gentrified Bushwick from the outer fringe where artists, musicians, and working-class families still (barely) make rent. The area is hardly squalorous, and increasingly safe, but it is an unrelentingly oppressive aesthetic environment, wrought in concrete and chain-link and cheap wood siding. Brooding in the distance is Woodhull Hospital, a brutalist hulk of black-brown metal broken by rows and rows of windows, and topped with three towers resembling laser turrets from Star Wars.
This is a strange place to find a neofolk project that exalts the "cold black earth," but there is no irony here. Rather, this is the kind of productive dissonance that fuels even the most melodic Cult of Youth songs. Inflected with American sounds and Christian words, new album Love Will Prevail may seem like a departure from the European pagan vision of the project's earlier output. This shift is actually an acknowledgment of ambivalence, however - Ragon's attempt to live with and redeem ideals to which he is also deeply opposed.
What drives Cult of Youth through this fraught territory is the quest for liberation - not just the freedom to do as one pleases, but the power to achieve what one wills. This is evident in Ragon's return to recording as a solo artist, in his construction of the studio, and in his (successful) fight against addiction. Indeed, liberty is central to his composing process. The songwriting for Cult of Youth is intimately personal and highly intuitive, divorced from preconceived notions of theme or genre, and it is also a vast, multifaceted work of chaos magic.
The Quietus spoke with Sean on the phone as he drove home through Pennsylvania, his car filled with new finds for the best underground record store in New York.
Your earlier releases fit pretty comfortably into the tradition of post-industrial folk music, but on Love Will Prevail I hear a lot more psych-rock, and also deathrock and hardcore. I gather these are things you've been into for a long time, but have you been returning to them more lately?
Sean Ragon: Not necessarily, and in a weird way I may have listened to that stuff more before. But I feel a little more comfortable in my own skin, and don't feel the need to adhere as rigidly to a genre as I once did. I can explore and experiment, and not feel as tied down, which is really a blessing.
Most of my favorite artists start out with genre records, where they're participating in something that's their "home base" culturally, some place where they feel comfortable. But they don't feel satisfied doing that, and stretch their legs and explore a bit more. Death In June started out as a Joy Division clone, you know, and Bob Dylan started out doing straight folk, and look where he ended up!
Yeah, I think at a point you find a "spirit" in the music that's your own, and the way you express that becomes a lot more flexible. All the specific stylistic stuff is incidental to the core of what you're saying. Given that Cult of Youth is developing in that direction, do you still feel any influence from industrial music in the way you write songs?
SR: I dunno, man, I love that stuff, but I'm always just trying to do pop songs! [laughs] I must be pretty fucked up, because they don't come out that way! I don't try to call it anything… I think it definitely descends from an industrial lineage, but it comes just as much from punk as well, and those are the two biggest influences on my life culturally. If I were to identify myself, I would identify with those two cultures 100%, but genres are weird. People would consider The Minutemen a hardcore band, but that doesn't make any sense based on how they sound. People's ties to genres are more based on the people they connect with and how they live their lives than "what does it sounds like," you know?
I think that my relationship with those genres is more than a product of what I'm listening to. It's sustained through the store [Heaven Street], and the distros I bring with me on tour, and my personal relationships with a lot of artists. I think that's where my connection to those scenes is probably stronger.
I read an interview from last year where you said that you'd been getting back into jazz, and that you were trying to incorporate that into your writing for the new album. I can sort of hear it in the chord shapes and vocal phrasing on 'A New Way,' but it's not obvious. It's definitely become part of your own language. How did that fit into Love Will Prevail?
SR: I don't know if I actually incorporated it as much as I intended to, or if it was just a subconscious thing that crept in. It was a large part of my musical background as a kid. When I was maybe 10 or 11 years old I started out taking piano lessons, and jazz is how I learned that there were no rules. With classical music, people would say, "Do this thing that a guy wrote a hundred years ago. You're doing it right if you do it exactly the same way." And that's great for building technique, but you're not quite doing something creative. When I first found out about jazz, I was like, "Oh wait, you can just bang on the keyboard? That rules!" It was before I knew about punk. I guess I always had a real affinity for that.
I played jazz too at about that age, but at a certain point I realised that I liked all the things I had thought were just dumb repetitive noise. I was like, "Wait, that's actually what does it for me." What jazz artists did you listen to back then? Was it mostly classic bebop and swing, or did you get into more avant-garde stuff?
SR: Well, we're talking about what I was listening to when I was 10 years old, [laughs] but John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, all the basics. As I got older I got more into more far-out stuff like Pharoah Sanders… I still listen to Miles Davis all the time.
The piano on the record is you, then, right?
SR: Yeah. I can't play the drums, and Glenn is an amazing drummer. If I had my druthers he would always play drums, because I've never met anyone else who can do it the way he can do it. And Christiana is an incredibly talented violin player and a joy to work with. But other than that, everything on the record is me. I needed to get into a solitary zone where I was in a room with unlimited time and the resources to make the record.
So did you consciously decide that you wanted to work on your own, or was it more of a practical thing, once you knew that Micki [Pellerano] was leaving the band?
SR: It worked itself out, but it was what I wanted. As we were working on recording the last album, I felt like it wasn't what I signed on for. It started out as this really private project in my bedroom, but out of nowhere it had turned into more of a band. I really liked that, especially being able to tour, but when everyone was included the songwriting process became less spontaneous. It was like, "We need to schedule practices, I need to write parts and then teach them to people, we tour on it, we book studio time in someone else's studio, play this thing until it comes out perfect, get someone to mix it," etc. It's an entirely different creative process, and there's nothing wrong with it - I've been in a ton of bands where that's how people do things - but to me it didn't feel like the right fit for this project.
It sounds like having a lot of creative freedom with Cult of Youth is important to you.
SR: In a way we couldn't afford enough studio time to really do all the fun stuff. I don't want to say the last album's incomplete, because it's not, but if we had another week in the studio all kinds of things could have happened. It's expensive when you do it that way, which is why I built my own studio. Now I can do things on my own terms, on my own time.
Do you think that giving a home to the music has changed the sound at all, or influenced your writing?
SR: No, I feel like it's given me a better resource for striving towards what I've always been striving towards. It helps me more accurately realise what's in my head. Sometimes you write a part and it doesn't come out the way you thought of it, or it comes out differently but in a cool way you hadn't expected. This is the first record where I felt like I thought of something and then actually achieved it. It's a really good feeling.
In neofolk there's this discourse of "the West," this ideal of Europe. That seemed to influence your older music to some degree, and one of the best songs on Cult of Youth is called "The New West." On Love Will Prevail, though, there's almost an American Western sound, with Gun Club guitars and whatnot.
SR: That's great, because the Gun Club is one of my favorite bands, so I'll take that as a compliment, thank you!
Yeah I definitely hear that outlaw punk vibe… Are you at all concerned with the American notion of the West, the frontier? Or are these just sounds that have percolated into the mix through the music you enjoy?
SR: The symbolism of the Wild West doesn't have much of a personal resonance with me. I've grown up in cities on the East Coast my entire life, so the idea of a frontier is not something to which I have an emotional or spiritual connection. But, that said, growing up in America that sonic palette is bred into you whether you like it or not. And I do enjoy country music quite a bit, especially the old stuff. But the cowboy imagery kind of disgusts me. I have much more of a connection with the native people, as far as what I would identify with spiritually. I feel it's a more authentic worldview.
I agree with you there. That's funny, because to me it seems almost as if Love Will Prevail is a kind of extended pun on the word "west," a cowboy western album that also carries on this self-consciously European musical tradition.
SR: Well, I do try to be authentic, and I don't like it when American bands totally copy European styles, because that just seems inauthentic to me. When you start working in a genre you need certain kinds of things to tie you to that genre, so if you're inspired by a European genre you might take certain European themes and run with them, but you have to contribute something new or have some kind of dialogue.
I guess I do have a love-hate relationship with America. I just toured Europe and it was incredible, and I was amazed by how the standard of living is so much better than what I'm used to, even in some of the poorer countries we visited. You get the sense that the world views America as this fucking buffoon, this big pompous braggart throwing its weight around while everyone is laughing at it. On the one hand I think, "Fuck, I need to get out of here, this place sucks!" But on the other hand, that's where I'm from, so like it or not it's a part of who I am. And in the UK, where a lot of people are snobby about the United States, it's like, "Yeah, I am an American, fuck you! What are you gonna do about it?" Maybe that two-sided relationship explains where some of the American themes come from.
On the other extreme, you've got a band like Awen, who are in Texas and trying to make this utterly primitive European music.
SR: I think they are an exception in that they are very authentic with what they do. I know Aaron personally and I think he's telling his own story.
Yeah, Awen are awesome. Authenticity to me is more about where you're going than where you're coming from, and Awen clearly feel it. But it's interesting that there are these different currents in how American bands are approaching that relationship with Europe. On the other hand you've got King Dude, who has gone further than you in doing an American take on neofolk.
SR: Definitely, I love it. I'm dying to hear the new record, I've heard a song or two. He's a buddy, and a very talented musician, and a very kind human being.
So on the new album there seems to be a lot of Christian symbolism, which I haven't heard much from Cult of Youth before. Is that just a caprice of your lyrical inspiration, or have you been more disposed to play around with those ideas lately?
SR: Well, I quit drinking and doing drugs a number of years ago, and at the time I was working on the record I was going to N.A. meetings and A.A. meetings, where a lot of what you think about is a personal relationship with God. And although the Christian god is not really specified, that's the god most of the people in the room are talking about, and it does have some kind of effect on you, at least subconsciously. In my personal and spiritual life I was certainly touching upon a lot of that content, so I wouldn't be surprised if it was there just because I was thinking about it. Just like I do with the concept of America, I have a love-hate relationship with Christianity. At its core it can be very positive, but historically the way Christianity has affected the world has been incredibly negative, and it's brought on the destruction of wonderful spiritual practices. It was the first religion custom-built for conquest. More tribal or traditional religions are religions of the blood, which you're born into, and this keeps them restricted to a specific people. But when religions start to have Beliefs and Faiths as their qualifications for belonging, then people get the desire to expand and take over. That's where wars come from, real serious wars over territory, not little tribal struggles. I don't think it's any surprise that a religion built for conquest originated in a desert, which is a barren place.
But at the same time, I really empathize with a lot of the Christ-symbolism, and the focus Christianity has on charity is a very good thing…
How do you see the ideal of charity working in a positive way?
SR: Well, a really important part of being a good person is having empathy for those that have less or those that are weak, and having the ability to not see them as any different from yourself. There's a certain humility to Christianity that I find a lot of value in. I think a lot of the people who get involved with pagan religions are fucking arrogant. I don't really empathise with arrogant people so much.
To me it seems like there's a kind of condescension involved in charity, but we might be talking about different things. I suppose what you're talking about is an ideal of universal love…
SR: Precisely, yeah.
The album definitely has that "there is no law but love" vibe.
SR: I think it's the responsibility of people to lend a helping hand to those that are in a bad spot, and I think that's a good way to find spiritual enlightenment.
Turning now to a different kind of enlightenment, you've previously mentioned that your interest in runes and pagan traditions began at an early age. I'm curious to hear how you got into that stuff.
SR: To be honest I can't really explain where I first saw it. I recognized those symbols and felt an immediate, very strong attraction. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachussetts, which has both Harvard and MIT, so I was exposed to things that maybe someone growing up in the middle of nowhere wouldn't have been exposed to. There were these weird, witchy occult bookstores, and I was able to find people there and talk to them about things.
Are there any particular books that have influenced you on this path?
S: I didn't seriously read on the subject until I was around 18, but the book I would recommend for someone who wants to learn about the runes is Futhark: A Handbook of Rune Magic by Edred Thorsson. It really lays everything out and is a very good stepping stone… Most of my connection to magic is through personal use. I'm not very studious about it, but I am spiritually inclined. My magical work is very private and doesn't follow any particular tradition.
Is it kind of a chaos magic thing?
SR: I think all magic in this day and age is chaos magic. Hundreds or thousands of years ago, if you wanted to study the occult you had to devote yourself to an order - just to get the information. But today, especially post-internet, there is so much information out there from so many different sources that the only reason to pick a particular discipline is so that you actually have discipline, so that you're not just picking from a salad bar. Everything today is influenced by the chaos magic model, which is that all paradigms lead to the same place, and that you should pick tools that have meaning for you.
Do you see magical practice relating to your music at all?
SR: The fundamental principle of chaos magic is that when you desire something there is an equal part of your brain that says "Oh yeah, but you can't have that" or "Oh yeah, but you don't deserve it." There's a negative counterpart to every thought. So the idea is to trick yourself into thinking of things subconsciously, and thinking of things through symbol, and to utilize extreme states of consciousness - gnosis - in order to charge those things.
I think the creative process, when someone is really involved in it, is definitely a state of gnosis, so I look at it as something I can use. There are hidden magical things within most of the songs, in fact, and I like the idea that a song could be a sigil in and of itself. Every time someone listens to it, it actively charges, especially if someone listens to it while engaging in sexual intercourse or while falling asleep or doing all kinds of other things. That's the long answer, but the short answer is yes!
So during gnosis, you're fortifying a subconscious state, building up reserves of will?
SR: Exactly. And that happens through the language of magic, the language of symbols.
Do you see the magic in the music manifesting more on a symbolic level, or in the sound itself, or both?
SR: Neither. It's more that the creative process, which is the ultimate thing that we as human beings can do, is the magic, and within that you can hide certain things. But it's not hidden with a clear symbol map. It's not something anyone else would never know… [The music-making process] helps me manifest something, to make it more real, but it's not like I'm casting a spell on the listener or anything. Which would be pretty cool if I knew how to do it!
Well listening to music can, I think, produce something like that charging effect for the listener. What you're saying, though, is that the spell you put in the music is strengthened by others' encounters with it. That it's being realised.
SR: Yes. But it has nothing to do with the type of music that it is, or if something sounds magical. It's just that the creative process is very sacred and can be used to charge completely arbitrary magical acts and desires. It could be anything. It could be Kenny G!
So in a lot of the music that Cult of Youth descends from, there's this idea of impending cataclysmic change. Death In June always looks towards Ragnarok, and Current 93 has this consciousness of biblical judgment. Do you have any idea of an impending revolution or apocalypse, be it literal or spiritual?
S: I wish I could say no. I really wish more than anything that I didn't think that was the case. But I fear within my lifetime something catastrophic will wipe out the majority of the human population. I think it's inevitable based on the way people live, the way people have no regard for the environment, the way in which the greedy few hoard all the resources and waste them and destroy them. Something bad is coming, and it makes me want to get out of America, because I think it's going to happen here.
Love Will Prevail is out now on Sacred Bones.