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In Extremis

Ritual Music For The Accumulation Of Energy: Anji Cheung Interviewed
Jimmy Martin , August 6th, 2014 09:55

The transportive, ritualistic drones of London's Anji Cheung conjure up portals to uncanny other worlds, heavy with the thrill of the unknown. Ahead of her performance at Supernormal this weekend, she meets Jimmy Martin to discuss a fascination with the occult, and how Throbbing Gristle and Coil have inspired her music's trips into inner space

Now, as ever, confusion looms in the worlds of extreme and avant-garde music as regards the nature of 'heavy'. Some find themselves deafened and aesthetically blindsided by mighty amplification and volume, by downtuned guitars and crawling tempos. Yet all too often, true heaviness lies in a metaphysical realm that has little to do with brute force, and deals far more in atmosphere and sleight of hand. Power and potency emerge from a certain form of dark intensity that conjures up strange and uncanny shifts in mood and understanding, operating far beyond bloody-minded overload in more sinister and subtle ways. Such is the work of Anji Cheung, the London-based solo seer whose ritualistic serenades open murky portals to dimensions unknown.

The architect of these pathways is sat by the Thames on London's South Bank this summer's afternoon, attempting to come to terms with how her own work affects others. "It doesn't need to be mysterious at all," she reflects. "I guess it doesn't matter what I want it to be, because when people hear it, it's going to be whatever they want it to be. But ideally I suppose for me, I do want it to be consciousness-changing or shifting, even if it's only momentary."

She pauses to consider. "There are words and symbols and feelings and images in my head, and how do I get that out in a sentence that makes sense? I have, for a long time, adhered to - still do to a certain extent - Buddhist philosophy, so I feel like that plays quite a part. At the same time I've got a real interest in the occult. I read a lot of that stuff, and I have a real interest in chaos magic and natural magic. It feels really strange to say it because actually I don't really discuss this very much with people.

"It's funny," she notes wryly, "because I always say 'occult', and then I went to this antique book fair recently and I was speaking to this really nice chap who had this small Aleister Crowley book for sale. I was having a flick through that, and he was like 'When you come to these things, people don't really use the word 'occult', it's 'esoterica'. It's like saying 'you don't say porn, it's 'erotica'," she laughs.

Whether occult, esoteric, shamanic or chaotic, the five album-length pieces that Anji Cheung has produced thus far, all of which are available to listen to on her Bandcamp, resonate at a beguiling frequency that comprehensively achieves her primary goal. From 2010's 'Vessel Of The Earth', a glacial pièce de résistance created in collaboration with Belgian artist Sequences, which Julian Cope claimed "permeated my permafrost and invoked within me the wildest caniptions", through 'Ghosts Of Dead Lords', which touched on doomed drone and black metal atmospherics, via the unnerving and relatively self-explanatory 'Ritual' and the Beard Closet collaboration 'Stonemaker', she has arrived at perhaps her most affecting work to date with 'Oakseer'. It was recorded live in the studio on the last December solstice, and deals out an appropriately wintry travelogue that takes in unheimlich electronics, haunted folk laments, eerie sampled vocal manifestations and a general atmosphere of ominous dread.

Cheung arrived at her current modus operandi after years of playing in bands, feeling that she had grown weary of the compromises implicit in that way of working. "I just find it really hard work, being in a band," she notes, "Once I want to do something, I have a really clear idea of how I want to do it, and - without sounding like a complete and utter nightmare - I've got a lot of energy, and once I'm into something, I just want to get on with it. So I find it really frustrating if you can only meet up once a week, 'cause obviously people have lives and stuff to get on with. It was about four or five years ago that I thought, why aren't I doing this on my own, so I can do it whenever I want, at the pace I want; I can do frankly whatever I want to do musically. The other thing I really like about it is I can collaborate, so you still get that interaction and the excitement of being with someone else and putting ideas together, but it's like a one-off project, and that's it.

"One of the bands I've been in previously was a little project called The Bleeding Machines, and we did some really nice mellow droney stuff, we also did some really crazy full-on power electronics," she recalls. "Now, we never gigged, we only did one self-release, and so that's the first time I'd really worked with noise and layers and experimenting. Prior to that it had been structured, grungy band stuff. I'm also in another project called Rohame. I can remember looking around on the internet thinking 'I just want to write music'. I don't care about playing live, it's my least favourite part of the whole thing to do actually, although strangely I am just starting to really enjoy it, and I think that's because I'm writing music that I really really love. But it was really seeing other people. I remember in the days of MySpace, finding a guy who goes under the name of Beard Closet, making just really lovely drone, with layers of stuff; really atmospheric, and for me, I find it really visual. It was, oh, this is like similar to stuff I'm writing, so it was yep, that's what I'm going to do."

Another major early influence was Throbbing Gristle, after a particular epiphany at the Astoria in 2004, where Anji saw the reformed line-up perform. "I can remember standing in the room and just being so overwhelmed in a really good way. Absolutely fucking amazing, best thing I've ever been to, hands down. When I heard them I was like 'Shit, that's like nothing else I've ever heard'. But it's not like I just jumped into that, it's really been a bit of a slow-burner. Most of the bands I enjoy are more metal bands - I like Meshuggah, Knut, and a bit of hardcore like Converge, Botch. I've always loved the riff, and still do. For a while my alter-ego was probably a thirteen year old boy who needed to be locked in his bedroom learning guitar, so I could have grown up to some amazingly technical shredder. But the love of the drone is bigger than the love of the riff these days."

From Throbbing Gristle, Cheung moved on to Coil, whom she still considers her biggest influence, alongside the likes of Wim Wenders, Derek Jarman and Alejandro Jodorowsky. "When [Coil] started out, they said they were making 'Ritual music for the accumulation of male sexual energy'. I think my music was always going to be ritual music for the accumulation of energy. I like the fact that they were also inspired by people and films and books - people used to say that being into Throbbing Gristle was like an education, and I think Coil's the same. There's a track I'm writing at the moment and something I did at that 'Oakseer' session which is quite influenced by an artist called Ithell Colquhoun; she was a British surrealist artist, but she was also an occultist and a poet, but she wrote this book called The Goose Of Hermogenes which I really like. It's a little bit all over the place because of the surreal aspect, but it's also just a really interesting occult fantasy, and it's really visual. And there are just certain words or paragraphs in that, that I keep going back to, so in some ways I'm bringing that through in the stuff I do. But I do love Current 93, Cyclobe I absolutely love, they're both ex-Coil. Although I think what they do is quite different to Coil."

'Oakseer' in particular summons a peculiarly British kind of bleak and wyrd eccentricity, not in itself a million miles from the recent work of English Heretic, from the visual spell-casting of Blood On Satan's Claw, Penda's Fen or The Wicker Man, or from the cosmic horror of Nigel Kneale and the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It seems fitting that Anji Cheung will this week be heading to Supernormal Festival, something of a new outpost of British eccentricity located in the heart of the countryside and in the grounds of a post-war centre for social research. This despite the fact that, much as is this is her first interview, this will not only be the first festival she's played, but also the first she's attended. "I''m just a bit of a hermit, actually," she concedes. "I love going to gigs but I like going home to a comfy bed. The bottom line is, I think everyone I know has been to a festival apart from me. And I thought about it a lot, back in the days when Reading used to be good, and it just never happened."

True to form, it's a peculiarly solitary approach that's led Anji Cheung to this stage, and it looks likely that this is the way her crooked aural path will continue. Moreover, whatever forces she's channeling look likely to be enduring. "It's completely self-gratifying. If I can convey how much I enjoy it and the way it's slightly consciousness-shifting for me when I'm doing it to someone else, and they can enjoy it, and it can do whatever it does for them visually, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, physically," she sums up. "I like the idea of automatic drawing, and almost trying to get yourself into some kind of a gnostic state. Automatic music."

Anji Cheung's releases are available now via Bandcamp. She plays at Supernormal Festival this weekend, which takes place at Braziers Park, Oxfordshire, from 8th-10th August. For more information and tickets, click here to visit the festival website.