Ghostly Tales In Amsterdam: 13&God Interviewed

Kiran Acharya talks to 13&God about death, poetry, beats and their new album Own Your Ghost

Holland seemed a way to go but 13&God are a band worth travelling to see. If you take a morning flight from London you can be sitting on Leidseplein by lunchtime, nursing a costly half glass of Heineken, looking past the trams towards Paradiso. As a 19th-century church, the venue has both a spiritual and secular history. The building retains its arched doorways and clock on the central apex, but it was also here in 1977 that The Sex Pistols suddenly found themselves without a record deal. The Today Show incident led to the ‘mutual termination’ of their contract with EMI, and they discovered that despite having signed a £10,000 publishing contract, the ‘Anarchy in the UK’ single was to be withdrawn in England and Holland. Malcolm McLaren fumed that after performing at Paradiso, The Sex Pistols had to sell their own records at the door.

The Sex Pistols are now gone, but people still flock to Paradiso, though Holland’s 2008 nationwide ban on smoking in public venues means there’s no chance of seeing anybody at the 13&God show lighting either a cigarette or a spliff. And after the performance, by the door to the smaller upstairs room, the band’s road team happily sell merchandise ranging from The Notwist’s 2008 album The Devil, You + Me to Jordan Dalrymple’s solo debut Antonionian and a selection of 13&God t-shirts. There’s also a limited-edition seven-inch of the new single ‘Oldage’, including a Console remix of non-album track ‘Luck & Fear’. But the items in most demand, released just the day before, are the CDs and twelve-inches of 13&God’s second album Own Your Ghost.

The albums for sale on the table point to 13&God’s transatlantic heritage. As a low-key collaborative supergroup, the core members come from the Anticon band Subtle, and German act The Notwist. So the European part of the seven-man effort features brothers Markus and Micha Acher as well as Martin Gretchmann, who also records as Console. The American members comprise lyricist Adam ‘Doseone’ Drucker, beatmaker Jeffrey ‘Jel’ Logan, and musicians Jordan Dalrymple and Dax Pierson. The band’s self-titled debut emerged after Doseone and Jel toured America with the Notwist in 2004. Their bus broke down five times. The delays were put to good use, writing pieces and forming the bones of an album that was fleshed out in sessions taking place in Oakland and Wilhelm.

But in the intervening years, life got in the way. In 2005 Subtle were on tour promoting their own debut, A New White. In Iowa their van skidded on black ice and crashed, leaving all but Pierson unharmed. It seems cruel and disproportionate that Pierson was left paralysed from the neck down, though his life and ongoing recovery have been an inspiration to his friends, family and bandmates. Drucker describes Pierson’s daily struggles as being amongst the bravest acts he has ever witnessed. Although Pierson is now prevented from touring, much of Own Your Ghost finds its genesis in his bedroom, where he uses a modified PC, Ableton Live, and Skype to contribute layers and tracks. The record’s closing song, ‘Unyoung’, remains his demo, and one of the most handsome songs on the album.

Thematically Own Your Ghost is about death, but it’s worth drawing a couple of distinctions lest the music be mistaken as morbid. No song really qualifies as either a lament, or an elegy. In music or poetry (Own Your Ghost features samples from, amongst others, Sylvia Plath and Marilyn Hacker) laments and elegies contain an element of mourning. While a few of the tracks have a melancholy undertow, no song mourns. There’s ‘Janu Are’, which seems to take its title from the idea that you can’t stop days peeling from the calendar. But then again, the Urdu word jaan can be translated as dear, or beloved, or life. You’ll hear feelings of loss, yes, but amidst the beats lyrical exchanges the music is a delicate prompt to memory and reflection, like finding a dollar that’s gone through the wash.

Is it too early in the afternoon to talk about death?

Adam Drucker: Never too early. This record is about the appreciation of life through the acceptance of death. That sounds tacky, but that’s the reality. The album is not meant to be a ride on the dark side. The first album comes from a collection of poems that focus on similar things, but the big difference between this and the first album is that this one is extremely focussed.

Is it fair to say that the themes emerge from your poems?

AD: Yeah, and they’re as much about health as they are about its opposite. I feel like the first 13&God album culminated, poetically, with ‘Superman on Ice’, in certain ways – but there’s lots of me in it, lots of ‘I’.

After the first record we toured together, where I wrote probably 45 per cent of the poems on Own Your Ghost. That’s how it began, and as I went over the next five years, I looked for anything that struck this ‘maturity’ chord. It started as maturity. Something about ‘age’ came out on the first album, but not so much death. And then everything that Dax has endured, that we’ve all been through… it’s just a real topic for us. I like to do many different colours of songs, but we’re definitely talking about age. It’s a very real thing.

Individually, do you fear death?

Jeffrey Logan: The only fear I’ve had of death has come from training, during my upbringing, with religion and all that. That’s the thing I had to get over, scaring the shit out myself by thinking about death. I don’t fear death as much as I did when I was a child.

Jordan Dalrymple: I fear an early death, before seeing the world, learning as much as I can.

As a musician, did you learn a lot of new things by making Own Your Ghost?

JD: Absolutely. Pretty much everything that I did on the new record was something that I hadn’t tried before. Like hitting piano strings with a mallet, or drumming on my knees. I was trying to fill in the cracks, as musically there’s a lot of stuff going on with these guys. I was trying to find things that’d make for little unique flourishes.

The knee-drumming, that comes up on the song ‘Armoured Scarves’.

JD: Exactly.

AD: That drumming was originally to replace something you [Markus] did on your counter, with sticks.

Markus Acher: Yeah. I guess it was chopsticks.

AD: Stopchicks.

MA: Yes, stopchicks.

AD: Tube-sock chicks.

Markus, how do you feel about death, does the thought sadden you?

MA: No, not at all. I am not afraid of death, for me it feels like pop and then it’s over. But I am afraid of death in life, I am afraid of seeing other people die, death in your neighbourhood or in your family. It’s something that is hard to handle, when people go too early. Children. All these forms of death in life, it’s something that’s hard.

If you’re to be buried, with a tombstone, what would you like your epitaph to be?

MA: I saw a great cartoon, a tombstone and written on it was something like ‘He was loved, now forgotten’. In German it’s like geliebt, und nun vergessen. But I have no idea what I would write. I never thought about that, tombstone, actually.

AD: Tombstones. I looked at a bunch, and one of my favourite epitaphs was ‘Here lies an atheist, all dressed up and nowhere to go.’ And Ben Franklin has a really smokin’ epitaph. It’s hot. It made me shiver:

The body of Benjamin Franklin, printer (like the cover of an old book, its contents worn out, and stript of its lettering and gilding) lies here, food for worms. Yet the work itself shall not lost, for it will, as he believed, appear once more In a new and more beautiful edition, corrected and amended by its Author.

Do you want to be buried, as opposed to being cremated then having your ashes packed into the head of a rocket and shot off into the sky?

AD: Buried with my cat. Put my cat down, if I outlast my cat. No, I don’t have any strong feelings about what should be done with me. I feel like whoever likes me most, at the end, can do what they want. You know, our friend Mikey died, Eyedea, Mike Larson, while we were finishing this album, which sucked. I was listening to this record and all this shit I write about death, and then to have to go deal with it. I thought, prior to that experience, that some of these poems had gotten me square with how I feel about death, and what I’d say to the bouncer at the gates of hell. But when Mikey passed I had to really sit with that.

I feel like all these words are actually quite truthful. Like Markus was saying, you can’t still be alive and put someone’s death anywhere inside of you. It’s not positive. The only thing that happens which is positive is that it rings the life bell, because there’s nothing more opposite than death. That’s what I realised: death is opposite.

Are you convinced that you’re going to end up in hell?

AD: No, but I like to think about all the hells there are. One of my favourite things. I like thinking of Cat hell, of Dog hell, Bouncer hell, Jew hell… some people are going to have a choice of all the wonderful hells. If you’re a black, Cherokee, Jew…

JL: Chihuahua…

AD: Jew, Chihuahua, tranny, if you’ve got all that going on, you’ve got some shit. One of the other things that I think is that certain hells can be other people’s heavens. Kitten hell is snake heaven.

I had a dream before we did all this recording. I was on a moving sidewalk like they have at airports, and there’s another one moving people the other way. And I realise after 20 minutes that I’m in the ‘heaven’ line and the full one is the ‘hell’ line. So I’m not walking, but we’re all moving, there are people everywhere and they’re waving, and all these people in the hell line keep calling out to me by name. I’m like ‘sshhh!’ Half of them are like ‘Adam…’, half are like ‘hey Dose!’ and I’m sweating in the dream. I’m looking for cameras. But yeah, I’ll go to hell, whatever.

There’s a sample from Marilyn Hacker on ‘Death Major’ saying ‘Nothing rhymes with death.’ What do you think she meant by that?

AD: Exactly what I was saying about how you can’t internalise the loss of a person’s life, at all. It’s the opposite.

JD: It’s negative space.

AD: It’s not really for you to process, y’know? It’s like trying to digest a stone. You can get it all the way through your body but it’s still a stone. That’s how I take that line. That shit breaks everything. That line is amazing.

JD: The only thing I can think of that rhymes with death is ‘breath’. But she’s saying that death can’t find anything around it, in the scheme of poetry, or anywhere else.

AD: The weight of that word trumps any kind of placement. And ‘the teeth behind kisses’, that’s the better line, too. She says that right before: ‘It’s the teeth behind kisses’.

The samples on the first record are a little looser, with sounds of the city and stray lines. On Own Your Ghost they seem a little more unified, to do with poetry and writing itself. From ‘Death Minor’: ‘Hey writer, I don’t want your stories’.

AD: Well, that’s all me, sometimes using a Dictaphone. Markus looks at me saying ‘maybe you can find something from a movie…’ I’m like, I will. So on the same song there’s a German sample, from Stroszek, which is a great Werner Herzog movie, with the actor Bruno S. He’s saying ‘I just can’t handle thinking about what happens to my pianos when I’m gone.’ He’s a very simple man in the movie, and he just confesses. It’s them saying ‘I can’t deal with death. I think about my pianos going on without me… and I can’t handle it.’

MA: The thing is, this guy, Bruno S, the actor, he died last year. A friend of mine, he made a movie about him because Bruno S was still making music in Berlin. Every week he was playing. But he was in two of Werner Herzog’s movies. He played Kaspar Hauser, a very difficult role.

On that point, do you have any highlights from painting or literature showing how artists in other media have treated death?

JL: I like the one, I don’t know the artist, but it’s the painting, the torture shit, with monsters –

JD: Oh, Bruegel, ‘The Triumph of Death’.

JL: Yeah. I don’t know how big the painting is but it’s a massive scene, it’s my favourite.

JD: They talk about that painting in Underworld by Don Delillo. Underworld is great too, it’s all about Brooklyn but also about J Edgar Hoover wearing dresses and hanging out with Frank Sinatra. The actor Jackie Gleason is also in it, he’s obsessed with that Bruegel painting. It scares the shit out of him.

And again on the same theme, you’ve sampled Sylvia Plath on the record…

AD: Because she was black.

Black? I thought she was mute.

Dose: Mute! She actually reads quite well, she’s one of my favourites. Though she can be a little [proper English accent] stiff!

JD: Is that ‘Flies watch no resurrections in the sun?’

AD: Flies watch no resurrections in the sun.

JD: Sounds like what’s-his-name.

AD: Dylan Thomas? [Declaims] And the clean bones gone. He’s like yellin’ at the dog. I tried putting him on a few songs but Markus would always be like ‘Ach! He’s just soo… much’. And he is. He’s always like: I am the interluuuude! But I try and get him onto our records. We took him off of ‘Perfect Speed’ on the first album and we took him off this one too. But he really just doesn’t know his work. He sounds good at first because he’s sayin’ great shit, but…

JL: He just needs like an 808 underneath him, that’s about it.

AD: And then you know Gregory Corso is on the new record too, on ‘Oldage’. The line ‘I’d rather die by anything but you.’ I’m cutting it up at the end.

MA: Yes, it’s on ESP records isn’t it, it’s the ‘Bomb’.

AD: Yeah it’s his ‘bomb’ poem. In fact ‘Oldage’ comes from that line, which I first heard on Vertex by Buck 65. And then later I read the poem, and fell in love with Corso in general.

JD: We had that horrible train ride in Denmark-

AD: That’s where I wrote the poem that became ‘Oldage’: Old age is a form, exchanging fat cells with a death. That all started there.

JD: We were travelling from a 13&God show in Roskilde. We were on the train, it was full of people, there were old people, smoking cigarettes, cramped… disgusting.

AD: I wrote the words in a fit of yuck, but I beautified that stuff.

And the song ‘Sure As Debt’, did that develop around the same time?

Dose: That was written on an air mattress in his [Jordan’s] apartment. I think I say that, in the song: ‘I woke up to the sound of trees being fed to a machine’. They were tree-topping, on his block. All that shit’s real. I had just sold a bunch of ‘Slowdeaths’ so I could pay my electric bill: The profits of Slowdeath dissolved off into electric bills, more blood in the bucket of what, more blood in the bucket of your deepest debts to the bank of America. It’s all verbatim shit, there’s no poetry on that one. It’s a laundry list actually. I like that about that song.

If I could ask again about the song ‘Armoured Scarves’, how do you all feel about that song? Is it a highlight to play? It’s got a lot of character, and it’s remarkable because you sing on it.

AD: Well I sing on the Subtle records, but what I like about this is that Markus asked for a rough vocal just to get a feel for the song. So I stood up with lyrics that I thought I’d use, and read ’em in one take. Markus was like ‘keep this’.

MA: What I like about the song is that it’s so simple, you know? Even though there are so many voices, they interact so well. It’s like you have this melody and then there’s another melody then another melody coming then still another melody coming. Then a last melody which everybody sings, there is so much happening.

AD: And there’s no break.

Markus, does the song feel like a technical accomplishment compared to other songs that you’ve written and developed?

MA: For me it’s something I always wanted to do. I thought that with 13&God maybe in the future we could have some more. But to really have just a few elements, instruments and lots of voices. The intensity out of the different voices, it’s like singing in an ancient village like the Sufis. It’s really fun to play.

AD: And our voices are all very different. It’s cool. We don’t make a lawless, burn-your-house-down kind of music, but we don’t really have any rules.

JD: I feel like that song is really something that neither the Notwist nor Themselves has ever done, nor Subtle. As far as arrangement, tone choices…

AD: I agree. And it was so natural. That whole song came about so naturally, there was no re-approaching it, it never got stuck.

When you were developing material for Own Your Ghost, how much did you discard, or set aside? I’m thinking in terms of album number three.

AD: Just ‘Luck and Fear’, which didn’t make the record.

MA: But I think, with this record, there are a lot of new ways which we can go, and ideas we can develop to make a third record. Things like ‘Armoured Scarves’, certainly, show a new way to make the next record.

13&God perform at the London Garage on Thursday July 14. Own Your Ghost is out now on Anticon/Alien Transistor.

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