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Strange World Of...

Channel-Surfing the Apocalypse: The Strange World Of... Daniel Higgs
Matthew Neale , May 21st, 2019 09:07

Daniel Higgs has built a legacy in the pursuit of his own spiritual truth. Ahead of an appearance at Terraforma festival he talks Matthew Neale through his back catalogue, with detours via mass media indoctrination, a drive-by shooting, and the mystery of how cassettes work

Daniel Higgs plays Terraforma festival on Saturday 6 July

The yggdrasil is the great tree of Norse mythology that connects all of the Nine Worlds, the supreme unifier between heaven and ash and everything in between. The term essentially translates as ‘Odin’s horse’, though various hair-splitting etymologies delineate its importance as either a symbol of the gallows or a dread call to Ragnarök, the succession of natural disasters and grand battles that ultimately purge the planet of humanity, the better to purify its scorched earth once more. It is part-way through a discussion of this concept with Daniel Higgs that he turns his ire to CD-ROMs.

"So you get a tool user’s manual, and then you gotta watch a movie about it before you can go use it, you know? It makes me uneasy," he tells me down the phone from Washington, DC. To be in conversation with Higgs, the former frontman of legendary post-hardcore band Lungfish, is to be frequently drawn down such rabbit holes – only to be dragged sideways at the last moment, a fresh excavation each time. If it sounds exhausting, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s an invigorating seventy minutes.

Coming up on Dischord alongside Fugazi, who also formed in 1987, the hardcore spirit at the heart of Lungfish was always rendered weirder and more exploratory by Higgs’ fascination with occult, pagan and alternative cosmologies, a spiritual journey that his solo work has taken even further. 2010’s Say God, for example, is largely made up of quasi-religious spoken-word mantras, including around a hundred invocations to ‘say god’ in the title track.

Higgs’ hardcore spirit – the one that began way back with Baltimore punks The Reptile House back in the 80s – lives on, though it’s undeniably got quieter over the years. Now two albums deep into Fountainsun, the beautiful folk project with his partner Fumie Ishii, he seems to be channelling the old gods with more power than ever, even if it’s mostly via banjo and poetry these days. Here the artist picks out ten of his favourite releases from various projects with a few gloriously off-road excursions along the way.

The Pupils – The Pupils (2002)

Daniel Higgs: Asa [Osborne] and I spent a year recording this record in his house. We composed the songs as we recorded them, exclusively. It was a lot of fun making the record, and I think the songs are pretty simple. It’s kind of a lean recording.

It was put to me that I should think about what records would provide a good introduction to my work, an indication of what I’ve been doing all this time, which is not usually how I think about what I’m doing; I usually just think about what I’m doing now. But I think this one is a good entry point.

Lungfish – Love Is Love (2003)

DH: This one and Feral Hymns were the last two Lungfish records, and they’re the culmination of almost twenty years of collaboration. With those two records the quest was over. If you never heard any other Lungfish records those are the two to hear, in my opinion – if you’re not going to sit down and listen to them all.

Earlier on, I cared more about what critics thought of our records – I’d always check to see if Maximum Rocknroll had reviewed it or something. At a certain point they stopped reviewing records I had anything to do with; it seemed we no longer met whatever their criteria was. So I did pay attention to reviews when I was younger, but after a while I realised I always felt strange after reading them. Even more interestingly, it didn’t matter whether they were positive or negative reviews. I just felt queasy reading them.

Today I wouldn’t even know where to read them. I think formerly if a record didn’t get reviewed, it didn’t exist, and that’s no longer the case. There are many albums released that don’t get anything written about them, which is a blessing and a curse I guess.

Any time I use the internet in a leisurely way, I feel like I’m wasting my time. I get the same feeling from the internet that I get from channel-surfing on the television. I don’t know what kind of brain waves are generated – delta waves, or gamma rays, or whatever – but low waves. And then you just feel gutted after fifteen minutes. The promise of the internet that was so exciting for people was that you can be the programmer; you can choose what to explore and what to learn about, what to view or listen to. But that power of choice doesn’t make it any less oppressive. Even if it’s quality stuff! You can watch a concert by a master musician on YouTube, the whole concert, and still feel emptied out, scooped out, like it took something from you. I spend very little time with the internet, and I wish I could spend less.

Lungfish – Feral Hymns (2005)

Most of the other Lungfish records had been recorded in Arlington, Virginia, and the great surprise with this final record was that it was recorded elsewhere. There were some things about the way our records sounded that we were never completely happy with, but we didn’t know about any alternatives.

With the last album we went out to record it in California with Tim Green, and we had a really positive recording experience – to me the final Lungfish record is the only one that really sounds like the band to me. It was nice to finally accomplish that, because it didn’t seem possible. It seemed to me that recording music would always be sonically a disappointment – to me that was just part of the project, that was what happened when you recorded. So the last record we thought sounded great, and I still think it sounds great.

Daniel Higgs – Ancestral Songs (2006)

There were two significant events leading up to this record. My mother had just passed, so that’s a major one. Just a couple of weeks after that I was in Chicago, and just as I parked my car and opened the door to get out, I heard gun shots. I jumped back in the car and after a few minutes, I peeked up: not even half a block away, a man had been gunned down in a drive-by shooting. In broad daylight. Some other things happened after that – the police arrived, the neighbours started looking out of their windows. And then a few minutes later a marching band paraded by, on the street at the end of the block. Of course, the marching band had no idea that someone had just been murdered. It really got me, and this phrase came to me spontaneously: I said, "We’re living in the kingdom of death, you know?" And then I wrote that song, so it’s obviously connected to that – the impermanence of the body.

Daniel Higgs – Metempsychotic Melodies (2007)

The melodies are coming and going, disappearing and reappearing in different forms. I don’t just mean my melodies and songs, I mean the total melodies and songs.

I think when I stopped making music with Lungfish, I could just go wandering on my own, through myself. I was much more limited in how I could perform my songs as well, because I just had to rely on myself rather than bandmates to help out. I’d been working with the band my entire adult life at that point, since I was a teenager even, but it didn’t even occur to me to work with anyone else for this record. Good music comes out of being in a band, but it comes out of strife, and that gets old. Everybody’s heard these stories before, lived through them. Any workplace is insane, isn’t it? You have to accept people, warts and all, and work together.

This record was again recorded with Tim Green, which is always a great experience for me – I haven’t worked with too many different recordists, but of those I have, he’s by far my favourite.

Daniel Higgs – Atomic Yggdrasil Tarot (2007)

I released this as CD plus book. The music on the CD and the pictures and writing in the book are more parallel than connected; I was recording the music at the same time I was creating the pictures, so that was how they’re connected. But I put this on the list more for the recording than the book. It’s definitely the most sonically harsh recording that I’ve released. But in that harshness and destroyed distortion, there’s a lot of small voices coming out, and I really like that.

Bettina [Richards, Thrill Jockey founder] said she liked the recording, but that it was so harsh-sounding, and was that how I wanted it to sound? I said yes, so they sent it off to be mastered. I got a call from the engineer saying, "I’ve got this cassette and I don’t know what to do with it, it sounds crazy and I don’t know how you want it." I told him I wanted it to sound exactly how it sounded before it was mastered. He said, "You want me to run this cassette through $20,000 worth of mastering equipment? And sound like nothing’s happened to it?" I said yeah. Everyone was perplexed by that, but I still think it was the right decision.

Daniel Higgs – Devotional Songs of Daniel Higgs (2009)

I think this is one of my more realised collection of songs. It’s all recorded straight to cassette, and then released on cassette, and I like that it didn’t jump format between recording and release. I still think cassettes are a pretty miraculous format, for many reasons: I like the scrolling aspect, that it’s wound up like a scroll; if you record on four-track you realise that all the music is recorded on one side of the tape.

I’m completely confounded by how cassettes work. When you put a needle on a record, even if the amplifier’s off you can get a little sound off the record from the needle, and you can sort of grasp how the technology works. Now with magnetic tape, I’ve had it explained to me before in plain, simple English how it works – it’s a sequence of positive and negative charges. I’ve understood the explanations but I still have no idea how it works. It makes no sense to me whatsoever.

This was made directly for cassette, but I’ve never made something directly for the internet. With a physical record, listening is a more deliberate act. So many people are listening to music all the time – it’s just non-stop, and then it’s like you’re living in a shopping mall. I’d travel on public transport, and see people listening to music on their Walkman, and for what? To kill time, to put their mind elsewhere. It’s amazing that music can do that, but then it can also make you subliminally desire a product. Music can make you really pumped up about driving your tank into a village and rolling over some little houses. There’s all these things that music can do, and the corporation knows every single one of ‘em. The spectrum of applied music towards desired behaviours. So I don’t music to put me elsewhere. I use music to feel where I really am.

The other thing with me is that I play music to find out where I really am in the world, and that’s the thing that’s really been lost. Just as literacy has diminished our memory faculty, modern practices have taken away music-making from so many people. In a not too distant age in the past, if you wanted to hear music, the only way to hear it was to find someone who was making some or to make some yourself. And if you have to make it yourself, you do it with whatever’s on hand – if you have a flute in your pocket and it makes three tones, you jam on that, and you have a musical encounter with the mystery that’s within you. You get acquainted with that, and the more you get acquainted with it, the more mysterious it gets.

So you know, music is a mighty tool that most of us are squandering on superficial delights, titillations and stimulations. I’m not trying to imply that I’ve broken free or anything, because I haven’t. I’m struggling all the time with the ambient, all-pervading mind control apparatus just like everyone else. I just try to be conscious of it, and to pay attention to how strange I feel after being exposed to mass media. There’s a lot of forms of it I haven’t been exposed to, like social media. But you know, I feel strange even after reading a newspaper. I can read a high-quality publication with smart writers who really know what they’re talking about, and then some sensationalist gossip-type newspaper, I get the same feeling from both. It just depends what you want to buy into it. If you enjoy being outraged, you know where to get the outrage; if you enjoy having the feeling that you’re well-informed, you know where to get the well-informed feeling. If you like the feeling of subverting the state, you know where to get that feeling. All these feelings, they’re just like flavours of ice cream.

Daniel Higgs – Say God (2010)

I had so many words for this album, and I knew when I went to record it that they were going to be the focus. I sang in rock & roll bands for over 20 years, singing in loud bands with electric guitars and drums, so I had become someone who sang very loud and could project pretty well, because often we were recording with inadequate soundsystems. When I stopped playing with the band, and started playing mostly acoustic instruments, I still sang very loud. And when I would try to sing more quietly, since I had no practice at that, I felt like I had no control, that I couldn’t sing well. It took many years to bring down my vocal volume. Now I can sing very quietly if I wish.

I remember the feeling in my throat recording Say God, that I was becoming aware of undesirable overtones in my voice. I was trying to sing more like the way I felt, rather than sing the only way I knew. I recorded this one with Dave Sitek, who’s also from Baltimore; by this time he had moved to LA and was now a record producer. But because we knew each other from Baltimore, he’d always said he’d love to make a recording with me sometime. So I made that with him as he was simultaneously doing his other work.

The lyrics are obviously all connected, every lyric I’ve ever written in my entire life. But they were at a particular pitch at that time, and I had a very strong desire to communicate with the larger society of which I’m a part, because I felt like I had a message to share. I think you have to listen to it in the right frame of mind, at the right time of day, or at the right time of the year. Otherwise there’s no way to get in. It’s almost like an equinox record – everything lines up and then you can go into the record to check it out.

Fountainsun – Music Today (2015)

Fumii and I had been together for a few years at this point, while I’d been making music and performing solo for over 10 years. I was really feeling that I needed to play with someone else, that I had gone into an inward spiral with making music alone and I’d taken it as far as I could. I was stuck, and I needed to collaborate with someone to keep making music. At that time I was playing a lot of instrumental banjo music, and the obvious thing was to find a drummer. Fumii really encouraged that, so I started playing with different people here and there. Some of the people were pretty advanced – too advanced. Other people were too stuck in what they were doing.

I found a pair of these ceramic goblet drums from North Africa in a junk shop. I brought them home, and as I was playing the banjo, Fumii started playing on them with some chopsticks or something. Immediately it was obvious that she was the drummer, and I’d been living with her the whole time! I knew that she loved music, but I didn’t know that she played. Right then I said, "Let’s start a band." We got some more drums, and that’s how we started Fountainsun.

Fountainsun – Sweep The Temple (2016)

Now we’re back with Tim Green. Fumii and I went to see him in northern California, near the Nevada border, and we had a great experience there with him – he even played a little bit on the record. I love the sound on it.

After mostly playing in a quartet in my early years, being in a collaborative effort with one other person was a completely different experience. But particularly in live performances, the communication I feel between the two of us and the audience is always very free, very easy, very posmic – that’s a word we use sometimes as a combination of positive and cosmic. There’s a man in Baltimore who always says it when you pass by him on the street. That’s a great word, isn’t it?

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