Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Los Arcos

Hot day in Los Arcos, great little town in the middle of Navarrah´s meseta. That´s desert to you and me.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Wine fountain

Yes, that's really what it looks like. A stainless-steel, all-you-can-guzzle red wine fountain. Arriving at 8am, I proceeded to swill as much of its frothy produce as my malnourished stomach could handle. Resting on little more than the previous evening's dinner and a few meagre morsels of biscuit, the wine soon worked its magic and I had to fight to stop myself from vomiting, launching into a fast-paced walk that took me quickly away from the brewery enclosure and into the morning glow of the Spanish countryside. By 11am I'd walked off most of the alcohol and still didn't feel hungry. Ah, the metabolic wonder of booze...

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Room to swing a car, Camino '05

Until you've slept in a half-derelict gym after trekking through 28kms of Spanish forest, you don't know the meaning of fun. Especially when you have a hirsute, didgeridoo-playing German, a cute Swedish teen and a wandering Jew for company.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Cathars and Spirituality

On 'Good' and 'Evil'

Though the attempt to quantify what is 'good' and what is 'evil' may appear irrelevant in this age of scientific realism - the important and vital qualities of religion having been dumbed down or long forgotten - the issue still holds great importance in understanding the absurd society in which we live. The observant Christian will follow his or her religion beliefs, living by the tenants of a faith which dictates the importance of charity and abstinence, in order to avoid the devil and achieve salvation. Yet, the paradox is glaring - we live in a society based entirely in the certainty of scientific fact, most of which contradicts or ignores the foundations of spiritual faith. Many alternative philosophies, such as Existentialism or Satanism believe that the line between good and evil is non-existent - that the two are interchangeable and part of the same, closed system. The Humanist vision, to which both of the previous world-views can be attributed, is one of an unbiased existence in which man lives according to the whims of his nature, whether they be social/antisocial, destructive/constructive, or other.

Yet the truth, as ever, is in balance and equilibrium. The truth is that evil breeds evil; indulgence breeds ignorance, and success breeds jealousy. It is far harder to indulge in good, because someone will always mistake it for bad. And then the indulgent will grow fat on the work of good men.

The Christian ideal is perhaps the most fascinating remnant of an earlier, more enlightened age. As Roman Catholicism stole its imagery and substance from earlier religions (including Judaism and the many 'Pagan' faiths), it contains a great deal of corrupt truth. If we look at the source of these ideas and the eras from which they arose we can shed a great deal of light on the true meaning and application of these 'truths'. One of the most interesting elements within Catholicism is that of the conflict between 'good' and 'evil', or God and Satan. God is always portrayed as a being of light and 'good', whilst Satan is consistently depicted as a being of darkness and 'evil'. But, as many people are aware, Satan was in fact an angel of light who was cast out of heaven for challenging the word of God, just as Lucifer rebelled in giving fire to man. The two angels are in fact one and the same, representing independent action and freedom of thought, rather than blind deference and obedience - a principal upheld and enforced by the Catholic Church. And why? Because Catholicism is a system designed to safeguard money, power and influence; an institution installed to keep the people lowly and the indulgent in power. A far cry from the original intentions of the Christianity.

The concepts of 'Good' and 'Evil' have existed for thousands of years, it is only in the past two millenium that they have been given such distinct embodiments. Figures representing greed, lust and human desire have been present in countless religious systems including the Greek and Roman Gods, the Norse myths and many lesser-known Pagan entities. One of the most obscure and lesser-known belief systems to focus on the interactions of good and evil is the Christian-derived Cathar religion. Closely connected to the Knights Templar, the Cathars occupied a large area of Southern France known as the Langue d'Oc, living in rural simplicity and practicing a religion that appeared, on a first glance, to bear a strong resemblance to contemporary Christianity. A closer look however, revealed a glaring contradiction: the Cathars believed that Mary Magdalene had been the lover and wife of Christ, and that she had fathered his children. This meant that they viewed Christ as a mortal man. This meant that sex was not an unholy sin. This meant he was no more the 'Son of God' than any other deeply spiritual individual; indeed it suggests that for the Cathars, Christ was a true icon - an example of faith rather than an object of patriarchal salvation.

The Cathars also held a particularly esoteric belief, echoed in the practice of the mystery schools of ancient Egypt and the Middle-East, to which no parallel can be drawn in current monotheism. They believed that within our realm of experience are two distinct spirits: one of the Earth, or the lower plane, and one of the higher spiritual plane. These two spirits are not enemies, nor are they mutually exclusive, they are interdependent and part of a single hierarchical system. The earthbound spirit works in the field of life and serves the ego of need. In turn, this spirit is fuelled by the individuals that worship it. This spirit also represents indulgence and the self - if the individual consistently indulges in the fruits of the material world, operating from a selfish viewpoint alone, then they are indulging in the food of evil and will never move beyond the earthbound spirit into a higher realm. The other, more subtle spirit of the higher plane exists beyond the realm of material pleasure, and will never be reached by those who do not see beyond the material. To reach this spirit we must continue our evolution and move beyond our physical and spiritual preoccupations to reach a higher realm.

Unfortunately, the earthbound spirit represents a far greater attraction because it exists within our own world; in the physical realm that surrounds us, and in everything that we desire. The higher spirit is a far greater challenge; it exists in our dreams, in our love and in moments of ecstasy that cannot be easily repeated, unlike the pleasure of a good apple. This higher spirit exists in a vibration that we can only reach through intense focus, and then only momentarily. It takes great effort to maintain, in contrast to the lower spirit that vibrates within our own range. And so we have a choice: to serve the earthbound spirit or to seek the higher spirit and complete our evolution. However, these two spirits are not distinct, separate entities but part of a bandwidth that stretches way beyond our material consciousness. We are low-vibrating creatures, capable of distraction and preoccupation, and thus prone to enslavement by the enticing earthbound spirit. This is the truth of 'Good' and 'Evil': the more that we serve the spirit of material satisfaction, the greater the evil that we can wreak upon our fellow humans and the world around us. It is time to evolve.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Steve Albini Interview

Emerging from the ashes of ‘80s hardcore, Big Black were a post-glacial reaction to corporate rock and an evolutionary step along the punk ladder. From these humble beginnings emerged Steve Albini, the snarling purist whose DIY ethos revolutionised the underground music scene. Outspoken and unapologetic, Albini soon gained notoriety for an unflinchingly hostile attitude towards the media, compounded by a defiant attitude in the face of criticism.

Never afraid to make enemies and always ready to speak his mind, Albini’s seismic blend of jackhammer drumming and buzz-saw guitars lay the groundwork for the ‘90s industrial scene. With over a thousand albums to his name from bands such as PJ Harvey, Bush and Nirvana, Albini stands as one of the most influential, yet anonymous producers in the history of rock. Following a brief sojourn with the controversially named Rapeman, Albini formed the indomitable Shellac: one of the co-curators of 2004's All Tomorrow’s Parties. RC decided to investigate the truth behind rock n’ roll’s maverick.

You studied journalism at college. What made you choose a career in music?

I couldn’t say I was pursuing a career in any sense. The whole time I was in school I was in bands, but to be honest it never really occurred to me that there was a job there. No one had any expectation that these bands would ever make their money, earn them a living; that they would ever be carried through life on punk-rock’s shoulders. However, that’s not the same as saying that it wasn’t important to everybody – it was deadly important.

So what inspired you to actually start making music? Was there any particular band that sparked you off?

The Ramones. I can say with quite a bit of confidence that if I’d never heard the Ramones I wouldn’t be involved in music at any level. I came to Chicago in 1980, and at that point the punk scene was kind of like a secret society. The bands that were around at the time were all perverse and amazing bands: the Effigies, Naked Raygun; really utterly unique bands, and I don’t just mean unique for the day, I mean unique. I can’t think of another band that behaved the way those bands behaved at the time, and in retrospect that’s what I liked about punk-rock, was that each and every band was a completely distinct package of behaviour.

How did Big Black start out?

During my spring break in ‘81 I recorded a couple of songs in my apartment. One of the people I distributed the cassette to was the manager for the band The Effigies. They were running a co-operative record label called Ruthless Records and offered to release the tape as the Lungs EP. The first rehearsals were done with Naked Raygun’s Geoff Pezzati on guitar and me playing bass, and we had a drum machine.
At the time it was kind of a novelty for any band to have a drum machine; they were either treated like very simplistic metronomes or they were used as a sort of imitation drummer, and all that just seemed totally retarded to me. The drum machine is an idiosyncratic instrument that’s got a lot of charisma and personality. Not taking it seriously as an instrument to me just seemed really… cheap.

The harsh guitars and relentless drum loops provided the backbone of Big Black’s sound. Was this a reaction to rock music in general?

Sort of. Everybody in the punk scene thought the mainstream audience were the stupidest people on earth, and we would have been saddened and offended if they had showed up to any of our gigs. Our fights were with the populist, ‘pop’ end of the new wave spectrum which I found really abhorrent. We didn’t really have any fights with Prince or Madonna. You end up getting in fights in your own neighbourhood, y’know? A 12 year-old kid doesn’t get on a bus and go try to assassinate the president, and the reason that he doesn’t is because that’s so far beyond his experience that he’s not even pissed off about it.

Big Black built up a huge cult following but split just before releasing what went on to become your most successful album: Songs about Fucking.

There was a practical reason for that. About a year prior to us breaking up, Santiago decided that he was going to go back to school. We scheduled everything so that it would finish by a certain date and the day after we got home from our final tour, Santiago showed up for his orientation for law school. I didn’t see any value in trying to replace him. Santiago was there from our first public performance, and I felt like he was really important for keeping my latent megalomania in check. We just figured well, that’s it, we did a good job. Big Black accomplished a lot and I was happy and proud of it.

‘Rapeman’ caused some controversy.

Ah screw that, who cares. Nobody cared about that. I mean sure, Rapeman is an ugly name; big deal, fucking get over it. And to my mom it’s no more offensive than ‘Sex Pistols’. The English music press made it seem like it was the most incredible thing in the world that somebody could name a band like that. They were drunk with power and they wanted to make a big deal out of it, whatever. It really broke my heart when we split up ‘cos I really loved playing that music, and I really loved playing with those guys.

You worked on the Pixies’ critically acclaimed debut album. How did that come about?

I was sent a demo that they had been selling around Boston which included their first EP Come on Pilgrim plus about a half dozen other songs, and I thought their music was fine. The number one goal was for them to get a record out of it that they liked, but the problem was that they didn’t express themselves very well in the studio. I enjoyed working on that record, but their music really didn’t make much of a dent on me. I’m not really that selective about who I work with and if it doesn’t seem like there’s a problem then I’m happy to do it.

How did you feel about the prospect of working with Nirvana after the success of Nevermind?

Well, I had been kind of insulated from the whole fracas about Nirvana becoming famous because I didn’t listen to the radio. So none of that stuff really percolated into my attention span, but I was aware of the fact that Nirvana had been part of the underground and then had sort of graduated into the big leagues. Then and now, I still think of bands that aspire to a mainstream level of success as being kind of vain and foolish. However, once I got to work with them I enjoyed their company, I respected them as a band and thought they made a great record.

Did you find yourself under any commercial pressure?

Oh I couldn’t give a shit about commercial pressure, none of that mattered to me. It mattered to all the flotsam and jetsam that were attracted to Nirvana, all the shit-box people that were there; their management people, their record label, their fucking hangers-on of all types. Now after the fact, Geffen’s Gary Gersh went out of his way to try to cause trouble. He was calling journalists and saying, “Yeah, this new Nirvana record is terrible and it’s all Steve Albini’s fault”. So I said, “Well Gary Gersh can go fuck himself.” And that started a big fracas with the record label.

Where any alterations made to the original recording?

Yeah, but I don’t think it had very much to do with that. After they finished the record the band were getting yammered at by everybody telling them how bad the record was and how they shouldn’t release it. It was a little bit uglier, a little bit darker. From the evidence, Kurt’s drug use had kicked back in and there was a lot of personal stuff tied up in the completion of that record.
It doesn’t surprise me that the record ended up changing a little bit, but to my ears it seemed unnecessary. It was like “Well, I’m afraid this won’t kick out of the radio hard enough, I’m afraid that it won’t sound enough like Boston,” or something. I don’t know what the fucking deal was.

What do you see as essential to a band?

I’m really only interested in music that surprises me. And what surprises me most is when I feel like I’m part of a genuine communicative or creative impulse from somebody else. What I like is to feel that the person making the music is being on the level with me; that they’re earnestly indulging a creative impulse, as opposed to just doing it for show.
I’m not really interested in the poetry of the expression. Music is way more than just the notes, y’know? It’s a conversation or it’s a gesture, and if you just repeat a gesture mechanically then it’s not an inspired gesture, it’s just a fucking pantomime. There are some movies that are better if they’re naturalistic, and there are some records that are better if they’re naturalistic.

What has been your most satisfying project to date?

Well, there are personal relationships that are formed from being involved in music that are immensely satisfying. For example there’s the band Silkworm who I’ve been making records with for a long time. We’re great friends, and our friendship wouldn’t have come about if I hadn’t been working on their records, and I think that’s what I take out of this job more than anything else.

In your essay The Problem with Music, (originally written for Chicago journal The Baffler) you detailed the duplicitous nature of the music industry. What advice would you offer to unsigned bands looking to make a career in music?

I wouldn’t presume to tell them what to do because everybody has to make their own mistakes, but they should be conscious of the way that the business operates. The people who’ve survived the longest and made the most durable and admirable careers have remained independent.
If you look at a woman like Annie DiFranco, okay, she’s not on the cover of Rolling Stone, but I guarantee you she makes more money off her records than Avril Lavigne makes off her 10 million. The same can be said of Fugazi and the Dischord record label. By keeping it close to your chest you can make sure nobody else fucks you, but more importantly you can make sure that nobody is fucked on your behalf.
Bands are encouraged to take this unrealistic view that they’re Robin Hood, taking money from this evil company. What the evil company is doing is placing a bet on them, and the bet is that they can make more money out of them, and if that doesn’t work they’ll make sure that the band is destroyed. So if your band means nothing to you, if you don’t care whether you’re paid fairly and you just wanna have this experience of being a rock star, then whatever. You pays your money, you takes your choice. So I don’t really have specific advice, but I have a perspective.

What is the future for Shellac? Are you working on any new material?

Shellac’s my band, and I’m happy to be in this band for the rest of my life. We’ve been recording over the course of the last year, but it takes us a long time to do anything. We spend a long time between sessions.
Watching you perform live, it seems like you guys are just having great fun. Would that apply to your attitude to music in general?
Yeah, I don’t do this for a living, I do it because it’s the most fun that I ever get to have. I can’t imagine why you’d do it otherwise. If you were just doing it to pay the rent, man there’s a lot of easier ways to make a living. And if you’re doing it because you want to be famous, go shoot somebody. You get famous right away that way.

If you would like to read an extended version of this interview, please email me at