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A Quietus Interview

The Faith Healers: Rival Sons Speak About Religion
Rev Rachel Mann , November 27th, 2012 07:54

Rachel Mann talks to the all-American classic rockers about reconciling their respective religious beliefs with today's post-moral music industry

An atheist philosopher friend of mine recently claimed "whenever someone tells me that they are 'not religious, but very spiritual', I want to punch them in the face. Hard...’ His point was that, even if religion is basically rubbish, it does at least make demands upon its adherents. Spirituality is the last refuge of the ‘please yourself’ brigade.

As a vicar and freelance music writer, I not only feel the force of David Webster’s comment, but understand only too well how in both music circles and wider society, ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’ stir many to violent feelings. A journo mate noted how the music industry wasn’t just amoral, but post-moral. If our default cultural position is either a middle-brow ‘scientism’ – only science can tell us about reality, yawn – or the flimsy, self-centred spirituality that Webster despises, how odd to be religious. And maybe, in a post-moral music industry, it’s even odder to be a rock musician and religious.

Rival Sons are the kind of filthy, blues rock band who not only get branded as cock rock, but seem happy to run with the dumb-ass fringe benefits that go with that appeal – music used in commercials, playing the Indy 500, being popular in those US states where people wear greasy trucker caps and get a tan on one arm only. Few might expect a band like Rival Sons – trading licks seemingly disinterred from classic rock’s mouldering vaults - to step very far beyond cliché.

And yet there is a sense in which, to borrow a term from the psychiatrist R.D. Laing, this band is full of members who have ‘divided selves’. At the risk of sounding like a lead-in for a bad joke, a Christian, a Hindu, a Native American and an agnostic walk into a [add the kind of place musicians hang out] and form a band. Yet that is their story. Sure there are plenty of awful ‘religious rock’ bands out there and sure there are plenty of musicians who indulge in vague spirituality; but Rival Sons are rare in playing filthy, macho rock and yet seeking to subvert the well-established paths set out by that trope. If Rival Sons’ music is of marginal interest to the avant garde, trying to live a faithful religious life in the midst of the post-moral is surely now so outré we should be interested in them.

Guitarist Scott Holiday looks like a picture from the Ladybird Book of Rock Stars – all dark glasses, smooth hair and goatee beard - but is a devotee and priest of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, aka Hare Krishna.

Scott Holiday: I relate what we do as a live act to what is called Paramatma, this idea where you no longer seem the everyday people we are in the material world. Rather you’re seeing individuals joining together as more like souls. And even though we’re playing some dirty rock and roll show and all these people are intoxicated and doing all this Maya (illusion) and crazy stuff, in that moment there is a lift of unification.

Can’t it be both things at the same time? I can go along to see Slayer and they’re singing anti-Christian lyrics and yet I have this sense of connection and power and unity. So I’m wondering – from your faith perspective - can it be both? Of ‘this’ world – dirty, filthy, whatever you want to call it - and also transcendent?

SH: For me it’s all of the same source. So there must be some sort of unification that can happen in the end. My – very limited – understanding is that there isn’t actually a different person bringing the evil or the good.

And what does ‘faithfulness’ look like in a rock and roll context?

SH: A very strong signal to following a spiritual path is surrender. But regulation is underrated. And this is very important because we are busy people with our busy minds. You have to do certain things every day and that can seem really mechanical. The airy-fairy spiritualists might be, "I can’t do that... I just go with the flow... and with what I’m feeling." That never worked for me.

Drummer, and Christian, Mike Miley offers a more light-hearted response.

Mike Miley: Ma’am, before I go on stage I just look in the mirror and tell myself how handsome I am [laughter]. I definitely try to always glorify Jesus and I’ll pray throughout the day: "let me glorify you through what I’m doing". The stage is just an hour of my day, and so it's really important to maintain balance. I’m not going to lie, I get tempted, but the rock and roll life is overrated.

Singer Jay Buchanan, a follower of the Native American Red Road, focuses on the place of identity.

Jay Buchanan: The whole identity thing with a rock and roll band, you talk about this machismo and all that stuff. I definitely understand because it’s rock and roll and it’s high octane stuff. So people will want to attach it to stuff like Indy Car racing or whatever. Sure, we are a cock rock band, full of male sexuality and machismo. But I’m not macho. That’s never been my scene.

But how does the image relate to ‘Jay Buchanan’ the person, as it were?

JB: It’s not really in my grasp how others perceive it. As far as the dress, I’ve always dressed precariously and androgynously. Since I was a kid. Growing up I did get called a poof or whatever. But I was raised to always set yourself apart from the pack. So with all that image, people will say whatever – that I’m trying to be Robert Plant or Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin.

There’s always been permission in rock and roll for people – whether they’re male or female – to play with identity and you come across as someone who is unafraid of androgyny…

JB: You know the human voice is neither male nor female, it’s melody. And my identity is built around my voice and being a slighter guy. So for me, when it comes to clothing and everything like that, I’ve never worried whether it’s a masculine or a feminine thing, because fabric in and of itself has no gender.

To what extent is your Native American identity connected to your instinct not to be part of the crowd?

JB: ‘I wouldn’t think that has much to do with it. Look at me, I look white. I’ve got uncles and other members of the family who are really dark and have the native features, but I never felt different. As far as practising, I’m the first person in my family in a couple of generations who practices what they call the Red Road.

So how did you come to practice the Red Road?

JB: I was always told from either side of my family about how much Native American ancestry I had. After high school I took a bunch of Native American studies. But it still didn’t really click. A friend of mine was following this medicine man and said "Jay, you need to do this. I think this is your thing." And at that time of my life it was too heavy. Something was really pulling me there, almost like a sense of duty, but I also felt I wasn’t who I needed to be. So it took a couple of years. And then I started doing things – going to a Sweat Lodge and going much further after that. But it was like I had to get lost and then find my way back to it. Because it’s a huge responsibility.

On the new album there’s the song ‘Manifest Destiny’. It references the idea of the expansion west, and America as a white, Christian, God-blessed nation. Tell me about that song and how that fits into your story as someone who is Native American.

JB: The concept of manifest destiny was just like selling soda pop to people. That expansion was all money. Telling people you have this Christian nation where we are going to be given this land, they were doing that so they could get money out of Congress. All this money was used to purchase land, insanely cheap, and it was purchased from people – Native Americans - who didn’t even understand that people ‘own’ land. The whole manifest destiny thing sold a lifestyle.

In writing the song 'Manifest Destiny', to what extent is it a musical expression of a spiritual identity?

JB: Not at all. I can write songs that are intensely personal, and even that reflect on my life, you know, a song like 'Jordan', but once it’s out there, it’s just a song. As much as it comes from the blood that courseth through my veins, once I make it a tangible thing it becomes merely that – a tangible thing. It’s all creative excrement at the end of the day. That’s all this stuff is. I love singing it and I love other people’s songs but that’s all these things are.

I’m guessing that the Red Road is based on wholeness, that the freedom of the land really matters. By contrast the doctrine of manifest destiny suggested you can parcel things up, even the land, and sell it. You’re involved in an industry that’s notorious for treating everything as if it’s for sale... how do you as a person walking a particular path deal with that?

JB: Touring and all that stuff is what I have to do. People try to put their unrequited dreams on you on a nightly basis – they want you to be drug addicts, to be jerks to people. As far as my spirituality, and with what my path is, I’m a horrible example. I drink and the people that I respect are completely intoxicant free. It’s shameful but it’s a coping thing. I have that strong white side of me - I love the liquor. Intoxicants cloud your lens and cloud your voice to the creator. Your thoughts aren’t steady and your heart can’t communicate with your mind and vice versa. So this lifestyle is taxing and I’m still trying to negotiate all of that.

There is perhaps a sense in which Rival Sons represent an all-American success story. There is something profoundly commercial about them. After all, this is a band that’s recently sold a song to Corvette. And the spiritual/religious stories that comprise it are precisely the kind of thing one would expect from the U.S. and, specifically, California.

Drummer Miley again:

MM: ‘My spiritual path is crazy. I was raised on Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People [one of the first self-help books, first published in 1936]. When I went to university I got really into reading about the East. I starting checking out mysticisms and religions and discovered a whole other world. I studied Kabbalah with a Gnostic group. However, after I studied Kabbalah I became a Hare Krishna devotee.

Yet he is keen to distance himself from that most American picture of Christianity, the form of religious consumerism known as the ‘prosperity gospel’ – the idea that if God’s blessing you, you’ll be rich and life will go well.

MM: The people I hang out with have a Jesus-culture. There’s a huge movement in America which aims to get back to Jesus the teacher. There are a lot of people in the States who are a bit crazy. The holier-than-thou people. We need to remember that we’re all falling short and have a share of the glory of God.

But there might still be a bizarre genius hidden in this all-American story – a paradox of self-realisation and commercial savvy. When I ask Scott about what Rival Sons becoming hugely successful might look like, he talks gently not only about being able to bring his family out on tour but also of his faith.

SH: I’ve also wanted to bring a troop of devotees with me, offering food (Prasadam) and do Kirtan (devotional chanting) out in the front of the gig. They’d keep me in check.

So how is this going to play if we’ve got you guys handing out Krishna literature in hillbilly land? Surely it’s not going to play well…

SH: It’s never been done. We’ll see how it plays. There’s going to be a new something that happens. Everyone wants to put this retread tag on us, but I think it’s a rarity to find people who want to make people that dirty and yet this clean and have a genuine heart inside.