Untangling The Galaxy: AHRKH’s Alex Macarte Interviewed

On the release of a new solo album of “psychic entrainment”, GNOD member Alex Macarte speaks to Matthew Neale about sound healing, the origins of creativity, and the glory days of the Salford Mill

Alex Macarte loves talking about the universe. Whether it’s waxing lyrical on string theory or eastern philosophy, he doesn’t take much encouragement; perhaps unsurprising from an artist who previously described the goal of his music is to “traverse the infinite expansive internal panorama within ourselves and discover ultra-dimensional transportation methods via sound.” As far as mission statements go, it’s certainly a world away from the usual spiels about making music for yourself and hoping other people like it.

Macarte has plied his trade across numerous musical projects, notably Manatees, Årabrot and Salford cult heroes GNOD, as well as his current incarnation as AHRKH that’s incorporated collaborations with the likes of HUM’s Mark Wagner. He’s also a qualified sound therapist now, among several other jobs. Put simply, if you need your eardrums blowing or your chakras realigned, you’ve probably come to the right man either way.

He’s also responsible for one of the most gloriously entrancing musical releases of the year, Beams From A Spiritual Panorama, a two-track, hour-long meditative odyssey which came out on Friday that perfectly complements one of his ruminations on the cyclical nature of time. As our conversation draws to a close, Macarte sounds momentarily sheepish. “I hope I didn’t go down too many rabbit holes or wild tangents there,” he says. The pleasure was all ours.

I’ve been listening to Beams From A Spiritual Panorama the last few days, and it’s absolutely beautiful. I gather it was recorded live at Melisa Auf Der Maur’s Basilica Hudson art space in upstate New York – how did that come about?

Alex Macarte: My friend used to be her personal assistant at the Basilica Art Space. I was visiting my wife out there and I’d been invited to play in the gallery space; the album is mainly a recording from that performance, with a few tweaks later down the line. I was back there last year for this 24-hour drone festival that Melissa does, which is exactly what it sounds like. She’s lovely, and she’s actually a meditator too, so there’s a link there.

In terms of the music you create, I don’t know if ‘holistic’ is the word that you’d use, but you certainly seem to be interested in creating sounds that form part of a wider, interdisciplinary sphere that includes meditation, yoga, spirituality, sleep concerts. Have you always been interested in music as a sort of healing tool?

AM: I think so, though perhaps I’ve not always been 100% aware that I was. From the very beginning, I’ve always found music to be a cathartic endeavour. As a kid, being into punk rock was a haven for me. But music is a self-healing tool for so many people, even if they’re not consciously aware of it – whether it’s the metalhead getting all their aggression out by thrashing to blast beats and getting their release from that, or being really quiet and still within yourself from some gentle, soothing sounds. Ultimately I feel like all of it is facilitating transcendence beyond their normal day-to-day state.

Looking back at GNOD and beyond, did you always know you wanted to explore those kind of drone soundscapes?

AM: Yeah, even my earlier bands like Manatees had elements of that. We always got thrown in with metal crowd, but we were too weird for the metal crowd and too metal for the weird crowd. But there were always these trance elements in there. When I started playing in GNOD that expanded even more, because GNOD is essentially trance music. I remember Paddy [Shine] seeing me play one of my first solo things, which was a lot more hypnotic than anything I’d done at the time, and at that point he said, “You definitely need to play with GNOD.” All the music I’ve been involved with has touched on it in some way.

I wanted to talk about Islington Mill in Salford as well. How did that community end up coming together?

AM: How much can I say without incriminating everyone? About eight years ago, Paddy invited me to stay where he lived, on the fourth floor of the building. It was this amazing makeshift apartment. I’d never seen anything like it outside German squats. I moved in there from Cumbria with no plan, no money, no job, and Paddy kindly let me sleep on his floor for way too long.

I started working on the bar, and it was very hedonistic down there, lots of 24-hour parties. I remember thinking, ‘Maybe if I just stay down here with these guys, partying hard, then I don’t need to sleep anywhere…’ It was really good fun at the time. Bill Campbell, who owned the place at the time, eventually offered me a studio and invited me to be a live-in resident at the Mill. After that, I was living, working and being creative all in the same space, and I was absolutely buzzing.

Bill started inviting other people to be live-in residents at the Mill, and it was quickly becoming a real community. At one point there were 15 people living there, which allowed for a huge amount of support, collaboration and inspiration. And fun, of course.

I know you mentioned previously that, like most artists, you’re still balancing creative projects with various side hustles. Do you feel like you’re close to reaching a balance?

AM: Slowly. It’s a constant hustle. I’ve been doing music for so long and it’s always been like that, which can be really exhausting. Not to be totally negative, because I’m playing music and travelling, but there is a whole side of it which a lot of people don’t see. It can be really stressful and have a huge impact on mental health, as well as creativity – if you’ve constantly got to hustle, where are you going to find the time to be creative? There’s this whole argument that people suffer and that’s where the art comes from, which I think is totally bullshit.

Last year was particularly tough because I was doing all these things simultaneously, doing two insanely physically demanding jobs while studying. Thank god I had the meditation, because otherwise god knows what I would have been doing. There are lots of bands that people assume are living off their art, but they’re not.

Working within more experimental genres, again if that’s not too reductionist a word, do you feel like the internet has been a leveller in terms of getting that music out to people who might not otherwise have heard it? Or is it more problematic than that?

AM: It’s a double-edged sword. Immediately it can seem like it’s not so great on the financial side of things, because music has become such a throwaway commodity – people will say they haven’t got enough money to buy an album, but then they’ll gladly spend £10 on two coffees, or £40 on a brunch somewhere. But then on the other hand, the reach is so much wider, and it’s made the world so much smaller, and that’s totally amazing. It’s almost cutting out the middle-man in a lot of respects; it’s much easier if you’re a smaller artist like myself to get your music heard – and bought. I think Bandcamp is the leading light in that respect, and it almost cuts out the need for a record label.

I got Spotify recently after a lot of resistance, because they pay fuck-all money. But as a platform and a tool, I have to admit it’s pretty amazing. It’s a great way to find new music. The only problem is the insanely unfair way the capital generated from it is distributed.

I see things changing though, not just in terms of music, but in a wider political sense. We expect our government to do things for us, this parent-child thing. Record labels often work the same way. But the power is with us. What’s stopping us from taking control?

How important was the sound therapy course for you, particularly in developing the style on the new album?

AM: Well, the album was recorded in 2015, so it’s very old material which I’m only just getting out now, mainly because of GNOD and other projects taking up so much of my time. My wife had also been to a 24-hour drone festival and she’d seen some gong players, and said, “Oh my god, you should get a gong, this is totally your thing.” I was telling her that when I play music with GNOD, I go to a different place, and she noticed the parallels with meditation. Thanks to her, she brought me into that world.

It was Mark Wagner from HUM, who I’d worked with previously, who brought the subject of sound therapy to my attention. He explained sound therapy to me, saying: ‘it’s what you do with your synthesizers and your voice, but people do it with gongs.’ After I read The Mysticism Of Sound And Music by Hazrat Inayat Khan, which he lent me, and it beautifully spoke about how music touches people in ways that other art forms can’t. It really solidified everything that I already felt about music.

The music I’d been immersing myself in was already sound therapy, I just hadn’t fully understood it at the time. Playing with GNOD, it sometimes feels like you’ve been blasted into a million pieces and then put back together again.

I started thinking about it practically too. I’m in my mid-thirties – do I want to be working in bars and cafés, or lifting kegs ten hours a day, breaking my back just to subsidise the thing I’m actually really good at? Or do I want to go down a different path where the thing I’m really good at helps people, and also brings some kind of financial reward? It took a while to find the confidence, because mental health is a huge problem with musicians, but I got there. It had to be now or never.

After lots of research, I started a two-year program with the British Academy of Sound Therapy because they’re focused more on science, physiology and consciousness. Their research has parallels with studies made into the health benefits of psychedelics, and forms of meditation… all of which all chimed with me.

I read from one of your previous interviews was that you’d been reading books on quantum physics and metaphysics, and noticing that some of the concepts that modern science talks about overlaps with knowledge already present in eastern philosophy. Do you see that as a progression that’s likely to continue?

AM: Absolutely. I feel like we all know everything, it’s all out there. It’s the same with creativity; there are no original ideas. Anyone who thinks they’ve got an original idea is kidding themselves.

‘Man does not create, he discovers’?

AM: Exactly. There are ideas out there in the ether, and it’s about whether you pick them out or not. I’ll sometimes get an idea, and then later see that someone else has already done it, and it’s infuriating. ‘No way, that was my idea!’ But it’s not your idea; it’s just an idea. Patanjali talks a lot about mass consciousness, and that idea that everything we need is pre-existent inside of us. You just need to acquire the right tools to find that knowledge. So yeah, it’s not surprising that science and metaphysics have ended up correlating with these ancient religions that have been around for thousands of years. They’re just looking at it through a different filter.

It’s going to happen more and more, too. I feel like we’re approaching a major shift in global civilisation, an awakening. It might look like ugliness and chaos right now, but that’s because we’re becoming aware of these things that have been going on forever.

The MeToo movement is a good example of that. You could look at that and say, ‘These times are so bad, look at all these disgusting men who’ve been getting away with horrible things.’ But they’ve been doing that forever. We’re just now becoming more aware of it. That’s positive change, it’s social evolution. I think we’ll see similar things happening in other parts of our understanding, and if it exposes some horrors, at least we’re moving forwards.

You’ve had a fascinating, sprawling career. What’s left on your creative bucket list that you’d love to do?

AM: That’s a really good question. I think I just want to do more – I want to do more of my solo work. In immediate terms, I’d really like to have a real record out there at some point. When I’ve been able to share these latest songs with people, it’s been really great and I can see that they feel it. I’d like to do more stuff with my label. Travel, meet people, collaborative, enjoy life. That’s all I want.

Beams From A Spiritual Panorama is out now

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