He Knows Just the Right Kind of Song…

The Trees Community. The Christ Tree
The Trees Community. The Christ Tree

Dubbed by Pig State Recon as the “weirdest thing Christians ever made”, this record has been blowing my mind and bringing me back to my ecstatic, mystic-gnostic roots. This CD is a selection of the extensive recordings from the 1970s of the Trees Community, known for their original liturgical compositions using wildly varied musical instruments like the Venezuelan folk harp, the Chinese Koto, tamboura, cello..among others, as well as haunting a cappella arrangements. It is the best Christmas Album you could really hope to discover today, Christmas Eve. It cuts through all the ubiquitous, bullying sentiment at this time of year with authentic joy.  Let us turn then to this psychedelic commune rock with sincere faith, in all its forms and paths, and eschew those sly architects of misery that insist on vapid holiday cheer.

My favourite track from this record:

Jesus He Knows

More beautiful music and information here: http://thetreescommunity.com/

The Trees Community at Niagra Falls. From Shishonee Ruetenik's ebook, Seven Story Bus
The Trees Community at Niagra Falls. From Shishonee Ruetenik’s ebook, Seven Story Bus

The Sleight of Hand Chaplet, by Feral Strumpet.

The Sleight of Hand Chaplet, by Feral Strumpet.

Grey Mary Visits

Who is that at the door?  A horse skull for a face, with green bottle-glass eyes, covered in a sheet, draped with motley ribbons.  Is there a man beneath? You almost recognize the shoes, the only human thing about him, as your neighbor’s, but not really.  And now, singing.  The spring hinged jaw opens and shuts.  The company he keeps is familiar, you know them from the village, they carry his jingling reins.  They had started out at dusk, you heard them farther out by the church, singing through the night, door-to-door. asking permission. And now it is midnight, and they are here.

In many UK folk traditions, the festival of Christmas carried on for 12 days after, and in Welsh tradition this is when Mari Lwyd, Grey Mary, Grey Mare or simply the Mare went wassailing.  Though today it may be seen as some kind of artifactual party-bringer, it is not hard to see in this strange being a skeletal, ghostly remnant of the “Great Mare” Epona, the ancient Roman-Celtic horse goddess once widely worshiped on this island.

Music and Making

I listen to music while I work.  Often it makes the difference between getting things done and not, but also in a more ethereal way whatever I listen to seems to inform my process and becomes a kind of collaboration, albeit maybe a one sided one. I try to listen to music that reminds me of the unearthly, folk tale setting where my designs originate.

My friend Brett’s band has a new album coming out, and it has been in heavy rotation since a preview the CD came in the post. ‘Lupus’ will be available in early 2012 from Deep Water Acres: http://www.dwacres.com/label  In the meantime you can find their first album on band camp: http://deadseaapes.bandcamp.com/

I listen to the band Earth– the last three albums, specifically.  Their fantastically titled ‘The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull” remains a constant companion, perhaps because it couples that sense of mystery with a far-off sound of home– the high lonesome sound of the western US, as seen through a dream lens.  I saw them play some of these tracks in London and it was a strange sense of being in two places all at ones– both homes– a rare feeling for the immigrant heart. Dylan Carlson, the lead guitarist of the band now has a blog about his travels around England and London specifically, and the history of fairy folk and magic in the UK– it’s wonderful reading: http://drcarlsonalbion.wordpress.com/

I also have to thank Jason Pitzl-Waters for turning me on to so much good new music through his podcast A Darker Shade of Pagan, and reminding me of old favourites.  His podcast is full of dark folk and witch-house, among other things.  Last year, his Yule podcast was very jolly, strange and grounded in winter earth traditions– I’ve dusted it off from the archive and am listening to it again to get me through the Christmas rush

(and believe me, there has been a rush!  Thank you Goddess! Thank you to all my amazing customers…and to everyone in my life who supports me in my new endeavor.)


Wrestling with Angels

 Horse Rotorvator is my favourite Coil album.  Sometimes it is the only thing that can dispel the existential chill. The text is from Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Angels. It’s fair to say this song inspired my newest piece, a pin made of salvaged rhinestones and a highly detailed brass wing.

The angelic half-nelson– I think we’ve all been there. This trophy brooch is one of a kind.  (Though some have said that angels’ wings can grow back there is yet no forensic evidence of such phenomena.)

Guitar Evening

Kiki Smith's "Wolf Girl"
Kiki Smith's "Wolf Girl"

Last night I went to see a metal triple bill at the Luminaire: Wolf People, Graveyard and Witchcraft.  The venue was way too small and was oversold.  Swedish metalheads were crowded in with hipsters still in their office-wear.  Why do they pay for a £12 ticket and drink £4 crap drinks all night while trying to shout over a heavy metal band?  Isn’t there an easier way to earn some lifestyle cred?

Graveyard were dull and painfully loud, even for a metal gig.  They clearly had the amps set to 12.  It wasn’t that thundering base loudness of Mastadon, etc.  It was this weird, treble-y, hornets-in-your-ears kind of sound.  If I am going to have tinnitus the next day it better be for something good.  Even though Wolf People were supporting them you could see the Graveyard guys watching Wolf People open for them and they seemed worried.

Wolf People are the only London band I’ve ever seen live (It seems London now has to import most of its rock and roll…I have many theories for this…).  Wolf People are melancholy, lyrical and stormy–the flute-player wasn’t there, so they sounded less Jethro-Tully and more like a tightly spectral CCR.

Witchcraft–freaky Swedish wizards–were haunting and slightly dorky.  They actually did a Roky Erickson song–White Faces (one of his “Horror Rock” songs and a favourite of mine.)  Spooky Texas rock by way of Swedish wildmen…brings out the white of the devil in me.

No Wave Seaside Holiday

Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, originally uploaded by stukgreen.

Last weekend Mrowster of Pig State Recon and I went to All Tomorrow’s Parties at the Butlins camp in Minehead. His write up is a decoction of our heated conversations over the past week, and I couldn’t have put it better myself.

I’d heard of these holiday camps when I first moved to the UK and had the misfortune of watching the E4 reality tee vee show Wakey Wakey Campers, where vacationers are subjected to the rigors of a 60’s era style camp. The sound bite argument of the show explained that post war Brits were so used to their lives being organized around war-time existence that leisure was particularly challenging.

I’d heard of these music festivals curated by the archivist of hipsterdom, Thurston Moore.  It seemed like a lot of money to be reminded of things I lived through the first time. But for this weekend with the Melvins (kinda ignored the Mike Patton element of the weekend, not being a fan) I broke down, forked out the ample poundage and packed my bags.

We stayed in a chalet, a euphemistic name for what my friend called an ‘Ikea showroom play house’, except that makes it sound cute and fun when really it was a bit grim, with the paint chipping on the walls and the wire springs in the cots pinching you in the night. But the chalet was relatively clean and warm. We made our own food which was lucky because the one time we broke down and had their “traditional breakfast” it was absolutely miserable: powdered eggs, lukewarm tinned beans and a mealy tomato cooked by a heat lamp, served up by smiling and helpful staff. (No amount of customer service can really make up for stingy ingredients and hateful cooking). I can only imagine the people who paid £35 for the meal plan were probably eating at the big-top’s Burger King every night.

I knew going to the festival I was agreeing to visit my old ghosts. The original line up of the Butthole Surfers, Lydia Lunch’s Teenage Jesus and the Jerks as well as the Damned appeared and with the exception of the Damned’s shambolic-yet-modish performance, it was like watching these acts in a hipster vitrine. As Lydia scrubbed her guitar strings in time to her whiny yell, the kids in front of her enacted a slam pit with ritualistic accuracy. I never thought she had much to say, even when I first heard her 23 years ago, but James Sclavunos on drums gave it some of that primal energy that I remembered from the time (even then, I was 10 years too late for no wave) that rock and roll still had this caustic power, an incendiary medicine for suburban kids everywhere.

Watching it I also realized this is no longer the case, the medicine no longer being necessary– obsolete in the face of new technologies like the internet and the Xbox, things that the generation after me must take for granted. Music would no longer give you an IRL tribe or an AFC life force, because no one wants those things. Now music can be collected, archived, indexed, downloaded. It was impossible to communicate to some of the younger music tickers there what the original context of this music was– traded on mixed tapes, discovered on vinyl as a fortuitous mistake. It was all word of mouth, all newsprint zines, all corner-record-shop back then. Would Lester Bangs own an iPod?

I’ve never been a big Butthole Surfers fan, but I did realize at the time of Hairway to Steven (one of the greatest record titles ever), they brought a particularly abject and nihilistic flavor to the acid renaissance, something I perceived at the time as being more honest than hippie psychedelia, even if I didn’t like it. Someone much younger than I complained of being disappointed by their conventional approach to rock n’ roll. I think he was expecting something rancid and harrowingly non-song from Gibby? He said glumly, “They even had a set list!”

I wanted to somehow explain that in ’87 they were indeed emotionally raw and shocking, but that would make me…old. What is the Butthole Surfers relevance in a world where Goatse is a common catchphrase? There is no hipster cred to be had in explaining to the twenty-somethings that where the spectrum-of-revolt was concerned, we green back then, in every sense of the word.

My friend Ellie and I at the Centre Stage, ATP
My friend Ellie and I at the Centre Stage, ATP

Happy Christmas, Dearest Reader

Christmas in London is a serious affair simply because everything closes. No tube, no buses. No shops or restaurants. The bustling, crowded city turns into a kind of ghost town. Other Americans have said to me, “I always dreamed of a London Christmas” and I’ve often wondered what exactly they meant– surely not the apocalyptic stillness I’ve encountered, having no one to see and no where to go on that day.

There is the argument that Dickens invented Christmas. Perhaps these Americans are thinking of A Christmas Carol— ragmuffins in the snow, conscience-pricking ghosts? Or is it something quaint, mulled and jolly– a received protestant memory? I suppose it’s where the archaic “Merry” comes from in the American “Merry Christmas”– this throwback of an idea. London is the Victorian city celebrating in ye olde stylie. Except it’s not. The only truth in these fantasies is that London at Christmas is a heap of juxtapositions, and maybe that’s why it’s amazing. It’s the one time of year you might have a Londoner smile at you for no reason, and that shopkeeper who you’ve seen twice weekly for years now might just let on that he remembers you. Of course, after the New Year things go back to brisk, slightly hostile anonymity.

Yule has always been my favourite time of year. I love the long nights and in London the nights are even longer. It’s harder to forget the pagan roots of the holiday– the lights and decorations are consolation in the darkness and the bitter cold. There’s less “Happy Birthday Jesus” and more puddings, ales, mistletoe and holly.

It’s easier to avoid the consumer cataclysm in London. I’m sure it exists on Oxford Street, the King’s Road and Carnaby Street, but if you don’t go there you don’t have to deal with it. If you do have to go to a store you’re more likely to hear a bizarre (to my American ears anyway), new-wave take on Christmas: Wham, Band Aid or even the Plastic Ono Band and Wizzard instead of the same schmaltz you’d hear in American retail establishments. Less Chipmunks and more Fairytale of New York.

And there’s something modest about the celebrations. As far as I can tell the big festivity here is the office party, and barring that, the coach ride to see relatives. Last night I was at our local pub and there was a table of celebrants having roast dinner. They all wore paper crowns (save two killjoys who took themselves too seriously. I believe you can judge the character of a person based on whether they are willing to wear the paper crown.). They read each other the stupid jokes out of the crackers which they pulled with childish glee, even though the lot were middle aged.

But there is the bizarro mirror, of course– being an expat here I see the British indulge in a Yank-style Christmas with I kind of sardonic guilt– it’s full on Hollywood romantic comedy, credits rolling over Louis Armstrongs’ It’s a Wonderful World. (The film Love, Actually kind of sums up this adaptation in a horrifying way.) Today two Radio 6 DJ’s I love to hate– Russel and John– played christmas music as they got drunk on cider and rose petal vodka this morning. And they played typical Yank Christmas songs, snarking all the way but still loving it, probably because they were opening gifts that contained even more alcohol. Damn if I didn’t get all warm and fuzzy, too. Especially when they played the atypical Ramone’s Merry Christmas, I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight. *sniffle*

But then, this time of year, almost anything sets me off, a song, a string of lights, a commercial for an ipod, even.

So today, after listening to Christina’s brilliant Xmas song, Things Fall Apart, I went for an astringent walk down the canal near my flat– frost-speckled webs drawn across the skeletal vegetation, only the thorns were left clinging to the frozen bank. The fog was so thick and ghostly, it blanked everything out– every tinselled sentimentality.