“When you stop growing you start dying.”
– William S. Burroughs, Junky (1953)
In the current post-punk scene the Berlin-based via Melbourne trio Ascetic: is one of most exciting and ‘progressive’ voices. After their stunning debut full length ‘Self Initiation’, a perfect personal distillation of the best influences from the 80s, their sophomore album ‘Everything Is Becoming’, released in the last days of 2015 and scarred by personal distress and the early uncertainty caused by the new European environment, is a less immediate further step forward to their sonic development, mixing industrial noise and electronic elements to their sound-plate.
Ascetic: is an “in progress” experimental project with no room for complacency, a challenging and powerful music experience from the inner depths of the soul and the heart. Their new Berlin home, the ‘electronic city’ par excellence, is an additional endless source of inspiration and confrontations; greatest and exciting things are definitely still to come…”everything is becoming” after all.
I know that between Saxon and August there’s a longstanding friendship, please let’s talk about the genesis of Ascetic:. How did you meet? What attracted you? And above all what are the elements that make this musical complementarity so unique?
Saxon and I are cousins; our family histories are entwined in quite a strange way. Saxon’s grandfather, Justus, was a painter in the style of Rembrandt, in the sense of deep, dark colours, focusing on portraiture, still paintings etc. He held his first exhibition in Melbourne and was disenchanted with the outcome; I’m not sure what his expectations were. My great grandfather, Mervyn, was a writer for one of the larger newspapers at the time and had come to the exhibition to review. They got to talking after the show and my great grandfather became quite enamoured with Justus, in time becoming one of his most ardent supporters. Justus would take classes and his students would also come to visit him at his property in the outskirts of the Melbourne, this project gradually expanded into a 32 acre project with buildings in style ranging from rustic, Italian mud brick to sand stone, gothic cathedral.
A close group of supporters and family lived on the property which was facetiously named Montsalvat, Justus espoused an ideological collage that spanned Freudian analytic to Luddite working methods which came out during painting lessons & also dinner conversations that ran close to the kind of interrogations one would assume occurred at communist reprogramming camps. Three generations later the property is now an government owned ‘art centre’, tourist attraction.
Saxon was literally born on the property and so was our collaboration. We were both working there at the time doing catering, we got drunk after a shift and recorded some stuff, me wailing out of tune, Saxon playing guitar. I was about 19; it was the first time I can remember engaging to music in any sincere way. We’ve been collaborating really since then.
When you look back at your childhood/teenage years nowadays, can you discover any early examples of being interested in what concerns your art at the moment? Do you remember when and where you started to get passionate about music and your early inspirations?
I think for me, my entire intellectual/artistic development was wrapped around 9/11, the unforgettable moment of rousing from bed as a teenager to see the coarse narrative of the Hollywood blockbuster exploding into reality, history unfolding in real-time. It’s the kind of event that has the gravity to mull over for a lifetime, in a way it was a kind of spiritual event for the inhabitants of post-modernity & the birth seed of post-truth; in the ‘‘Zeitgeist’’ documentaries, you see the beginnings of the global conspiracy ideology, where one artist/thinker can single-handedly synthesize an alternate history, fusing Egyptian blood-line lineage with Christ as astrology to currency as simulacra and government as ultimate perpetrator.
It was ultimately the notion of truth that brought me back to this event; what occurred? Who is responsible in the micro and the macro of history? For a young person it is interesting to see at what lengths people cease to seek exploring the truth when it meets the taboos of their belief systems. Ιt was for me also the dawn of my education about the reality of the global, corpo-oil empire, the underbelly of accepted and taught history. I read John Pilger’s ‘‘Τhe New Rulers Of The World’’ when I was 16 and it stretched my understanding of just how dark the world was to a degree that it could not recover, or could not return to a state of prior innocence. I became disgusted with politics and I turned to studying psychology, mysticism, psychedelics, Jung, Joseph Cambell, Terence Mckenna, Carlos Castenada, Ken Wilber a veritable rite of passage, the well trodden ‘path less trodden’, trying to remain rational and critical at the same time opening myself to the further fringes of what is true, often stepping over the edge into pure woo.
You’re Berlin-based at the moment. I recall many years ago, talking with an English musician (Stereolab’s Tim Gane) I met with at a Berlin gig, how he was so highly impressed at how extended the city was, and imagine he came from London! What has been the impact from your giant desert-alike Australian homeland to a sprawling, at the same time decadent and modern, metropolis in creativity terms? Do you definitely feel part of a new community now?
The impact is incalculable, we moved here after our first tour, to be honest I had no romantic notions about Berlin, it just seemed like the most logical place to move if we were to base ourselves in Europe, affordable, English speaking, we had spent a bit of time in the city between dates and so had some degree of familiarity. Saxon threw himself into the city more so than me, it took me a long time to find my bearings. I was coming from a period of intense introversion in Australia, I was living in a small mud room at Montsalvat. I had a seriously unnerving event with psychedelics that took me a while to recover from. I spent two years as a sober vegan and a year meditating for two hours a day. By the time the first album came out I felt trapped by this lifestyle but at a loss as to where to go from there; when the chance to tour Europe came up it seemed the perfect escape. Melbourne is a great city, it has a very European feel about it and in many ways it has parallels with Berlin, the music scene there has some great artists, great bars, food etc., but the overwhelming aspect of it for me, in hindsight, was the alienation. After living in Berlin for several years, I realise now how being so physically removed from the rest of the world affects the city. Of course the internet bridges things in some regards but physical distance is real and difficult to overcome.
It has been nearly four years we’ve been here now and definitely feel part of a community, I have met a lot of great musicians/producers that I admire and respect and that I have learned a lot from directly and indirectly.
You have released two album so far, your debut ‘Self-Initiation’ (2013), which as the title suggests, was a positive and at the same time melancholic and euphoric beginning of/into something new and exciting; while the last one, at the end of 2015, was recorded in an intense and harsh period of changes and struggles, emblematically called ‘Everything Is Becoming’, is a painful and all-encompassing evolution in every aspects. Please, could you better explain their genesis and the evolution between them?
I find it difficult to put it in words as I feel the works speak for themselves. An album is the amalgam of your experience in a time and space, the palette of your emotional experiences inform the works in subtle ways, colours things with choice of notes etc. The first album is more naive in its execution, it is bold and direct. The longer you make music the more you become interested in subtleties. The new album isn’t technically much more difficult in its compositions, still more or less revolves around verses and choruses. It’s just that the textures have more nuance and expression and the soundscape has more unexpected details.
The new album has a more experimental, less immediate but intriguing and visceral sound. Adding to the usual instruments of a ‘‘power trio’’, elements like machine sounds, synth, samples, field recordings that contribute remarkably to evoke the feelings of the lyrics. Could you explain how do you approach your creativity and studio recordings?
I think Saxon and I are both procrastinators, highly self-critical and perfectionists in our own way. In both of our albums our drummers pushed to book time in the studio to get them finished. The first album was written with live drums and we more or less created the tracks live in our rehearsal room and recorded them live in the studio. On the second album since it was more reliant on drum samples and other stranger sounds, the skeleton of the track had to be finished before we worked on it live. For the tracks I am writing, I generally finish the structure and get Saxon to write guitar for it and Saxon will finish the structure and I’ll put lyrics and vox to it. I prefer to have a song finished before we hit the studio, so I can get the feel of the track or its intention before it’s recorded but I am still finishing lyrics up to the last vocal take I did.
Some years ago soon after walking out from a painful personal depression, l realised to be in that brief intermediate ”state of grace” where my inner vision of the past and present was the clearest I’ve ever had. Maybe was the same for you when you wrote the lyrics of the last album…Please, could you talk about your lyrics and your approach to their creative process?
For me the key lyric to the second album is ‘Utterings’, I wrote it years ago after working on a track in my studio at Montsalvat. Often when I had some music that I was trying to write lyrics for I would take a drive with no particular destination, following the path of least resistance, taking whichever direction the lights were green. Nothing came to me during the drive, but as I returned to the studio the first line came to me and then I sort of improvised with some other notes I had. It took me years to work out what was said through the lyrics, but I think it’s the result of what happens when someone attempts to be good, genuinely good, morally and in their actions, but for some reason it is not enough, like the protagonist in the song is a jealous god that hasn’t received its worship, so the good intentions become toxic and the figure becomes vengeful and violent, and yet the ‘message’ at the end of the song is still essentially positive and uplifting, though it is cloaked in misdirection through it’s delivery.
Both albums are full of songs that follow this trajectory. There is tension and then there is release, Saxon came up with the term bloom-gloom to describe that, sort of dragging the listener through the muck before you feed them the elative moment. The lyrics for the last album were written over quite a long period. I started some tracks over two years before we were recording and finishing the last of them at the end of our time tracking in the studio. I guess what you’re talking about is the reflexive power of our psyche, you get depressed, you get sick, you encounter tragedy and then hopefully, you return to a familiar emotional equilibrium and for several reasons, you feel happier only just to be able to function, one being the fact that you are elated that the pain has subsided, the other I believe is a kind of confidence and insight you gain from having widened the borders of your experience and knowing that you have the ability to return to a familiar state of function, to endure hardship.
What are the emotions that you feel personally when listening back to the album now? Do you have a different perspective about it?
There is a mix of emotions, but I can’t listen to either album really, there are too many technical things about the composition and the production that irk me. I generally listen obsessively to recordings until I just can’t bear hearing them any more.
Berlin is mainly known as a techno/electronic music city. Is this the inspiration for your growing interest in dark industrial electronic music? The band made a remix for Sweden’s act Den Nya Borgen, Saxon has his own electronic solo project called Halv Dröm and a remixes EP, featuring Ancient Methods, Phase Fatale, Elisabeth Dixon and Luna Violenta, via the excellent Berliner electronic label Instruments Of Discipline, which is imminent. Are they just side projects or will electronic music become more and more an essential element of the forthcoming Ascetic: sound? Do you usually go clubbing too?
Berlin has definitely pushed us in that direction. We’ve had a growing interest in writing purely electronic music, Saxon has been producing as Halv Dröm and I have a project with my girlfriend called Operant which has been my exploration of chaos, noise, techno etc. We were writing this kind of stuff before we produced the second album but I think the constraints of executing it made us return to writing in a way we were familiar with. The next release will be the remix EP, due out within February. Unfortunately Liz didn’t have time for it, so a project called Unhuman from Berlin will be contributing the fourth track.
I am not entirely sure what the next Ascetic: release will be following this, we have been touring etc and I’m excited about our live sound but also want to explore possibilities in the studio, we have a nice little set up in our studio in Lichtenberg where we will be recording and producing the next EP/album. It will definitely have a heavy electronic element though I’m not sure exactly to which direction that will extend, whether bass lines or drum machines. It is important for me that the project retains live performance at its core so I’m not the one who wants to introduce overly complex layers that are irreplicable live without a backing track, that is important to me.
Andrew Jigalin, the drummer, is the definitive third Ascetic: member. How did you meet him? What’s his contribution besides his instrument?
Andrew has contributed a lot! He pushed us to finish the second album, found the studio, booked the studio, booked most of our last tour, found our rehearsal room, drove most of our last tour and on tour as I mentioned in a Facebook post, he generally makes you feel like you are being watched over by a magical pirate, ready to solve any problem that comes your way and even to create some if things are going too smoothly.
You’ve recently had a European tour, my Italian friends gave me rave reviews about your gigs. What’s your favourite part about playing live? Do you always have the complete control/focus or do you get lost in an euphoric trance-laden state sometime? So in short, please explain, or better help us feel, the magic of your performance.
I think the better you get at playing your own songs and the more confident you become performing with your band mates the more your body and mind are freed for performance. For me there is a real joy when you know you can give in to chaos on stage and that the whole thing won’t collapse because you aren’t there focusing on it. There is always the opportunity to push the boundaries of your body and to push the boundaries of the sound. By the end of the last tour I think we had really reached a new level with our sound, I don’t know what happened exactly but there is now the sensation for me at least that all the sounds are being crushed together, it gives a weight to the presence of the performance and an intensity. If there is one review we consistently get it’s that ‘the show was intense’.
A short film (already presented in our ‘Songs Of The Week’ column) directed by the talented Johnny Welch and scored by the first two tracks ‘Utterings‘ and ‘The Clearing’ from the last album, has just been released. Influenced by David Cronenberg movies and writers such as Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs, deals with subjects dear to your sensibility as obsession, paranoia, the interconnection between mind and body, internal and external reality. What’s your opinion about it and how much literature, cinema, painting etc. influence Ascetic: art?
We love the clip; Johnny did an amazing job. My thoughts on music haven’t been radically altered by anything cross disciplinary recently. If I find inspiration from cinema, then it generally comes from an intersection between sound and visuals. There has been so much great music coming out and so many great shows I’ve been to recently I haven’t had the time to see many exhibitions sadly.
What sorts of music do you usually listen to when you’re not creating your own one? Any tips for your readers?
Unhuman’s new release for AMOK Tapes is awesome .
From Australia, Military Position – ‘Made To Fight‘
Puce Mary’s last album was one of my favourite for 2016.
And I’ve probably listened to this 1000 times in the past four years, the tear at the end always gets me.
Many thanks for your time, I would like to end up with the usual question about your future plans and expectations.
I ‘ve already mentioned the remix EP should be out in February. We have avoided booking shows for three months at the moment to spend some time working on new tracks which could turn out to be either an EP or a full album depending on how much momentum we can gather.