Banishing Point: An Interview With Kavus Torabi

Ahead of an appearance at Acid Horse 24, Kavus Torabi talks Jonathan Wright though how, against the odds, he created his second solo album

Professionally and creatively, Kavus Torabi is living something close to his best life. A disciplined and radical figure who methodically works at his music, writing and visual art; he no longer needs to have a day job to keep body and soul together. He’s based in Glastonbury, where he goes for walks up the tor. And yet, as his remarkable second solo album The Banishing documents, he’s arrived at this point in the wake of a turbulent time.

It’s as if, Torabi says, half-jokingly referencing the swinging-sixties comedy Bedazzled, in which a lovelorn Dudley Moore negotiates a Faustian pact with a diabolical Peter Cook, “I made a deal with the devil.” For all the creative freedom he now enjoys, resting on having built up “different small income streams” over the years, the kicker is that, “You used to have this family, and now you don’t have that anymore.”

A man who, when he speaks to tQ, is preparing to get up on stage and commune with an audience as frontman of Gong, a band he has done so much to reinvigorate and even reinvent in the wake of Daevid Allen’s passing, has lately experienced schism, loneliness and (his word) psychosis. Underlining just how bad things became, a working title for the LP was Now I’m The Antichrist.

So what happened? How did Torabi find himself cut adrift from his previous life – banished? To piece together the story, it’s necessary to go back to the pandemic. “I lived with my wife and daughter in a little basement in Hackney,” Torabi says, “During the lockdown, it was just a very, very difficult time for all three of us. By the end of lockdown, it became really apparent it wasn’t working. Someone had to go, and it was me, I had to go.”

At around the same time as the pandemic forced us all to turn in on ourselves, Torabi had begun work on The Banishing. Ironically enough as things turned out, he initially wanted to make a record that was less personal than its predecessor, Hip To The Jag. Instead, as the record came together, he ended up chronicling his experiences. It’s a process, he says, that required honesty rather than being “an unreliable narrator or writing from the third person”, disguising the songs’ meanings as he might have done when he was younger.

“I’d write something and live with it for a bit and think, ‘Well, is that really what happened?’” Torabi says. “The whole process of making the record became a way of trying to work out what happened to me and to our family situation over a couple of years. It was incredibly cathartic, but I wish I hadn’t had to do this, it wasn’t something I expected to do.”

Every time he sang the songs, Torabi says, he found himself reliving what had occurred, inevitably a “painful” process. Even on the jaunty ‘Snake Humanis’, on first listen a whimsical psychedelic pop song imbued with the playfulness of Syd Barrett or Robyn Hitchcock, Torabi sings, “Fought my demons, I’ve fought my angels too, but heaven help me, I don’t want to fight with you.”

In part because of the need to revise and check his work, the album took time to come into focus. The sheer disruption of leaving his home played in here too. “Steve Davis took me in,” Torabi recalls, referencing the former world snooker champion turned musical adventurer. “I went round there, and he and his girlfriend said, ‘Just stay here as long as you need to.’”

The couple’s home at the time had a “little outhouse” where Torabi could work and where, “unable to bear spending any time with anyone”, he could hide from the world, “sobbing away to myself”. It was here he recorded the melancholy, prog-tinged ’Push The Faders’, which even now he finds difficult to revisit. “It’s a sort of diary,” he says. “I remember just how crazy I felt when I was recording that.”

If all this gives the impression The Banishing is a confessional album, that’s true, but it’s by no means the whole story. For a start, that description doesn’t map easily onto the album’s sonic palette, which moves from nodding mischievously to In A Silent Way-era Miles Davis on opener ‘The Horizontal Man’ through angular math-rock and swirling psychedelia. It seems important to mention that his wife has heard the LP and liked it.

Throughout, Torabi is in control of what he’s doing, of the album’s narratives – or at least he’s managing to ride the storm. There’s a rigour here, a sense of long experience being brought to bear. It’s perhaps telling that Torabi references writing candidly for Knifeworld about his devastation at the health problems suffered by Tim Smith, leader of Cardiacs, a band Torabi joined in 2003. He worried about being “a vulture”, but people responded positively. Smith, an “incredibly inspiring” figure, is also the subject of ‘A Thousand Blazing Chariots’, a stately, melancholy song written before his death.

To dive more deeply into the album’s recurring lyrical concerns, the idea of banishment has a double meaning throughout the LP. So while ‘Push The Faders’ finds Torabi reflecting, having reached rock bottom, on being forced to leave an impossible situation, the album is also concerned with Torabi banishing his own personal pain, moving on. It’s no coincidence, you would guess, that the anguished ‘Faders’ gives way to the album’s most expansive track, ‘Mountains Of Glass’.

It’s a song Torabi completed in Glastonbury. He moved to the Somerset Levels after Michael J York, who along with Davis is Torabi’s co-conspirator in electronic trio The Utopia Strong, said he needed a lodger. Realising he could no longer afford to live in London, especially if he was to have space for his collection of musical instruments, Torabi took him up on the offer. In his 50s, he left a city where he had moved, after growing up in Plymouth, when he was 21.

Eighteen months later, he says, “I thought I loved cities, but this has really been the first time I’ve spent any period of time by himself. I can sometimes go three days without seeing anyone or just saying, ‘Thank you,’ to whoever I’m buying my groceries from.” All your life, Torabi says, you tell yourself stories about the kind of person you are. One of these stories was that he needed people around. It turns out this wasn’t true.

Here, as he struggled to get The Banishing over the line, he decided one of the problems was that the original lyrics to ‘Mountains Of Glass’ were “too self-pitying”. Yet there was something in the track. Rather than set it aside and, having previously experienced doubts two-thirds of the way through projects, he trusted his instinct.

A way forward suggested itself as Torbai worked on finishing the album. He would take a “cleansing, heroic dose” of magic mushrooms, “which I find really helpful”. (Putting the contrarian view as someone who experienced something akin to PTSD following a bad trip, there are risks here.) He fasted for the day and walked up the tor. He treated the trip as a ritual – a banishing ritual.

“I really went in with intent,” he says. “Any kind of ritual is about putting meaning into it. You can look at something and, if you put no significance in anything and look at something through the lens of everything being totally random, then everything is random. But if you put meaning into something, then you personally are imbuing it with some sort of significance.”

It worked. Torabi underwent a “profoundly mystical experience”. He made notes. “I really experienced the classic dissolution of ego and sense of self and time,” Torabi recalls. He also had two epiphanies. The first involved what he calls “the dissolution of atheism”. It’s an idea linked to overcoming doubts, which can fall away when you’re in an altered state, and, more generally, dealing with the hurly-burly of the everyday world.

During the trip, he also thought about the nature of time and the notion, more widely accepted than you might suppose among physicists confronting quantum weirdness, that “everything is happening all at once in a single instance”. This led to a second epiphany: “Music is based on memory. You need memory in order to understand music, because you need to have known that the first movement or the first verse has returned again. If there is only a single moment, the only music at that moment is just a single drone or chord that never changes.”

Seen in this light, our “atrophying bodies” are “merely vessels of time”. He continues: “In order to enjoy music or fiction or anything, you have to you have to be able to experience the movement of time. And it’s like, ‘Okay, oh, that’s brilliant! That’s what’s good about these ageing bodies, that’s what’s good about memory.’”

With the drugs beginning to wear off, he went downstairs. “Suddenly I realised I was ravenous because I hadn’t eaten all day, I had been fasting, and the first thing I saw was an apple. The album’s cover artwork is littered with all this biblical imagery, with a snake. I took a bite into the apple and realised, ‘Well hang on a minute, this is me eating and leaving paradise. I’m now coming back into the physical world.’”

He went back upstairs to find the work-in-progress artwork for The Banishing, which seemed “really three-dimensional”. He got out his pens and finished off the sleeve at “the tail end of this profound experience”. Two days later, Torabi had the new lyrics to ‘Mountains Of Glass’, a song he likens to “a hymn”. Its presence changes the mood of the album because, although it’s the penultimate track, it represents the end of a difficult time, getting through it all, “a form of healing”.

At which point, you could of course object that drug-induced epiphanies can be explained purely in terms of chemicals acting on the brain. Plus, frankly, Torabi comes across here like a bit of a hippy. And perhaps Torabi wouldn’t entirely disagree. Because, while he uses terms like ‘ritual’ and ‘magic’ in talking about The Banishing, he comes across in conversation as a kind of grounded psychedelic trickster.

“I’m not in any way a practising magician,” he says when we begin to talk about the idea of magic and incorporating it in his art, a remark that’s curiously reassuring. More seriously, what fascinates Torabi is what you might describe as the idea of finding magic in everyday experience – magic as an aid to living better.

“There are a lot of things that have happened, even in the last year or so, where I could go, ‘Well, I could call that coincidence but if I call it magic it’s more fun,’” he says. “If you want to put it in the most utilitarian terms, if you want to achieve something then, whether you’re conscious of it or not, micro-decisions you make will generally be made in order to achieve this thing.” Approaching the world like this, says Torabi, makes life more “exciting”. You could also see this, to return for a moment to ‘Mountains Of Glass’, as another exercise in ensuring “the dissolution of atheism”.

These kinds of ideas even influence the way Torabi dresses, the tousled hair, the nail varnish and a fondness for primary colours. “I thought, once I started dressing up like this, that it makes life more fun,” he says. “I was wanting to be that guy, so why not be that guy? It’s ludicrous, swanning around in the pub wearing red winkle-pickers and stupid hair. People look at you and think, ‘Who’s this wanker?’ But I don’t care. We’re all who we pretend to be anyways, it’s only a flesh avatar, you know?”

In the near future, the Torabi “flesh avatar” is planning to play songs from The Banishing live, with a show scheduled for Acid Horse in Wiltshire and Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands. Having played all the instruments bar a flute part, which was played by Steve Davis’ partner Katie, on ‘Snake Humanis’, this will involve a harmonium, guitar and drones. “Until about four years ago, I’d never performed by myself,” he says. “It’s really, really terrifying and sometimes it does fall on its arse.”

In contrast, playing with Gong is to front “a big production” where things are so professional that “it would be very difficult for us to fuck up” – so long as Torabi practices so that his guitar-playing chops are equal to the task. As for The Utopia Strong where the mission statement involves using improvisation to make “celestial music that maps out the architecture of eternity”, that’s another beast again.

The interview is winding down. A Gong band meeting beckons. Joy. But there’s time for one last question. At times when he talks and in certain songs, Torabi conveys the idea he’s tough on himself, even that sometimes he doesn’t think of himself as a good person. It’s a a particular contrast to the way he talks about Tim Smith, as someone who spread joy. Does he agree or am I over-reaching?

He looks mildly taken aback at this notion. At times in recent years, he concedes and as The Banishing makes clear, he didn’t feel much like a good person. “That’s a funny question… I want to be good, I strive to be. I think I’ve got a pretty rigid moral compass.” And who among us, if we look deeply into ourselves as Torabi has lately done, can really say better than that?

Kavus Torabi plays at Acid Horse 24 on 24 May; The Banishing is released on 3 May

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