In what ways do you take care of your own mental health and well-being?
What I do is I go walking almost every day, and during those times of solitary moving through space, I can remember the vibrating beauty of nature and the world around me. And I mean that I have a sensory relationship with my experience of the world; it's very much electrical, down my spine. It's embodied, it’s a somatic experience for me. When I remember my existence, I remember it with a kind of electrical pulse.
This is something that I first started having when I tried Zazen back in the late 70s, and then when I was practising with a Sufi master in the 1990s. I was doing Zikr with a small group of students and we had asked this Afghan gentleman, Mr. Sati, to teach us Zikr and he agreed to teach us if we read the Qur’an with him. His practice energised me in a way that has not left me, and it was a little bit destabilising. It was actually something that made the world so loud to me that I had to disengage for a while.
I moved away to a small town on the coast, broke up with my companion for two years and lived a bit of a “hermit” life trying to find my sense of direction. When I came back, I came back with the intention of being engaged with the world on a very day-to-day mundane basis, everyday existence - what the Buddhists call "Tathātā", or "thusness". And you understand why most spiritual traditions have a language of normality, a language of boringness - what the Sufi would jokingly say is it has to pass "the aunt Martha test", i.e. would your aunt be freaked out or nervous by you? A person who is following a practice which is centering and which can provide a pathway into engagement with the future is a person who can actually talk normally with a person who has no idea what that practice is and you won't make them uncomfortable.
And so, you quickly learn to distance yourself from tripiness, from overly engaged language, and find a practice which is mundane. I think that's a practice which is sustainable. For me, the practice is remembering the vibrating particles that make up the universe. When I'm alone, and heightened, allowing myself to just feel that incredible vibration of photons that permeates everything, that there is this incredible energy that the universe creates and destroys. Even on a quantum mechanical basis: a vacuum creates particles and they annihilate themselves on a constant basis. And this everyday practice allows me to be very normal, yet underneath that boring nerdy exterior is the person who might be absolutely melting with ecstasy.
I'm usually alone when those things happen so that nobody sees my inability to come up with the right words, or my inability to think or do anything, but what’'s worth noting is that I was able to experience those things before I had ever known what psychedelics were. Psychedelics actually taught me to be careful about that. To be careful about talking about it too much with people, because it makes people uncomfortable. Now, it's been 30 years or so, or more, since I've had those psychedelic experiences, and they're so far in the past that I can speak to them safely without feeling like I'm making anybody uncomfortable. The important lesson is just how everyday those experiences are to us, and how accessible they are without the chemical loudness, that the exogenous influence of the neurochemistry makes these things that are endogenously very natural, become very loud.
There's a spiritual metaphor that may be a little strange sounding which involves the centre of gravity. I think I agree the word spiritual is a problem because I'm more or less an atheist. I don't have any idea of ghosts, I have no “wooiness” about the world. I don't feel that there are any invisible spirits permeating our world, yet I think the world, the universe, is full of mind and consciousness. So if I have a magical thinking it's involving the idea of the universe being conscious. However, I don't need a God for that. This idea of centre of gravity is that when you have experiences through endogenous means, you have this centre of gravity that's lower in your body - it's more towards your belly or groin - and it keeps you from tipping over, gives you a sort of solidarity or gravity.
Psychedelics, in their loudness, bring that centre of gravity up and out, creating an instability. People who rely too much on psychedelics for their ecstatic experiences tend to become emotionally destabilised, and they stop becoming a normal player in our civilisation. They step outside of the game, which is good, we all want to be outside of the game, but they become unable to participate in the game in a beneficial way, because they've rendered themselves too unbalanced. In a centre of gravity way, and people can intuit this, just like we intuit our body language, there’s a destabilised psychic energy, which happens with too much psychedelic use, I think. And you can see it when you see the difference between a person who has come to a sense of self-awareness through quiet means, through endogenous means, versus a person who has become aware of the fine grain of existence through the psychedelic means: the person who has done it endogenously is going to have a somewhat more solid, lower centre of gravity on a psychic level.
And do you think the same may be said for music?
I think you could use the same metaphor. I think when you're dealing with a man-made structure like music, all sorts of other things come into play, which are social contexts, expectations. I think of music as participating in one of two, or both of two different forks of human endeavour. This is an oversimplification, but it works for me. I think if we look at the foundations of language throughout our evolution as a species, when our brains were starting to bifurcate into left and right hemispheres, and we were developing symbolic systems, what we see is that our musical centres are in a symmetrical place in our brain to Wernicke's area. So if we are right-handed, the centre for language is in our left hemisphere, on the inside of the temporal lobe. Our right hemisphere then on the same symmetrical spot is the part that we respond first to music until we get musically trained. So that musical training then causes that response to spread out over the cortex. What this tells me is that intrinsically, music is a holistic language that is engaging our brain in a complementary way that human language does. I suspect that this evolution grew with language, as our need for ritual and trance didn't go away, as our symbolic systems grew.
It's a reasonable speculation that in evolutionary times, the role of music was to engage us in the shamanic practice, in altered states of consciousness, to reconnect us to the pre-symbolic world that we existed before we had symbols. The holistic world of sensing this now without naming the "sunyata", the emptiness. If you think of humans as a social animal, we need communication and symbolic systems to enhance our social structures. So, we develop a new form of music, which is also a storytelling system, a way to remember cultural memories. We have a new way of attaching language to music, music being the primordial connector to our unconscious mind and to that shamanic space. To the other world - the shamans would say “I'm journeying into the other world”, the parallel universe. What we've done is we've evolved a dual role for music. At the original level, music is a trance-inducing way of taking people into the shamanic space, but now we've grafted upon it the role of societal storytelling and creating community.
If we imagine that those two roles of music as communal memory and storytelling, like the way that the Iliad and the Odyssey would have been told in 1800 BC - Homer was really probably not one person, but was a collection of roaming storytellers, who sang these myths, who sang these stories and everything was memorised, word for word. These songs were being travelled as a cultural memory by poets, bards, who were also the singers and musicians. The same is true in Islamic tradition of the Qur'an: the Qur'an is memorised word for word exactly. And there are no errors being made in those memories. So song with words is a way of engaging the holistic side of music, the shamanic side, the cultural memory side, and that evolves into what is now popular song, pop music.
You could argue that language is so intrinsically associated with the cultural context, that music with voice for that reason, will always have this embedded.
Storytelling, cultural memory. It's a way of engaging unity. So if we want to poke fun at the role of modern pop music, we could step back and actually respect it for what it's doing for modern teenagers, to create a sense of identity, a sense of meaning, to convince people that they're not alone in their sexual longing. Because as we become sexually mature, we feel like we're the only ones who ever had those feelings. And so we hear all these sexual songs, and we realise, oh, okay, I'm not alone, right? I'm not the only horny person in the world. And so then the stories that we need to tell in order to tell us that we're not alone. So, there's still this undercurrent, this other side that music has and I would like to argue that over the history of human evolution, there has been also a parallel role of sacred music, or shamanic music, or trance music that serves the role of connecting us to the parallel space, to the hidden world, to the world without symbols, to the world of "thusness". Whatever the culture, there's going to be some place where music is being used in that way, as a magical ritual, not as a storytelling or as a cultural bond.
Because the point of it is to go beyond language.
That's right. So even in medieval Europe, when you had the church dominating so much of human experience, so much so that you could be burnt if you had experiences that were not part of the church's story, the church still provided means of experiencing ecstatic space with, for example, the cathedrals and Gregorian chant, in this massively reverberant space, hearing tones that are very pure, which can transport you into an ecstatic state of religious ecstasy. Even in something so imprisoning as the medieval Christian church, there was an outlet for the sacred space, for pure endogenous experience. You have drumming in Africa, you have shamanic chanting, you have the Native American Navajo blessing way, and all these things. They have words, but the words are about healing. The words are about entering into a space of trance into a shamanic space.
They're very simple and repetitive as well. So at some point, you will detach yourself from the meaning of those words.
Yes. I'd like to think that in our cultural memory in the last 75 years in Western culture, what psychedelic culture has done is to reinvigorate the role of ecstatic music in popular culture. That part of the psychedelic tradition of the 60s was to bring, for example, tonalism back to academic music. People like La Monte Young and Terry Riley. Terry Riley would take acid and play tape loop concerts with organ all night - and they were psychedelic experiences. He was basically taking what he had seen from Indian classical music and raga, and translating it into a Western psychedelic context, with a very clear awareness of its role as a trance-inducing experience. I think the repetition of minimalism is very clearly acknowledging the role of trance music. You see both Philip Glass and Steve Reich having mentioned the role of West African drumming, Ghanaian drumming, in their influences. Philip Glass more so I think with Indian music, Steve Reich more with drumming, but they both were very aware of West African music. You'll see also in jazz, for example, the free jazz movement in the 60s and early 70s, which was also connected with the movement of African Americans repossessing their culture that had been stolen from them through slavery, and bringing back ritual. Groups like Chicago Art Ensemble, or Sun Ra, brought ritual to jazz music and a very overtly Afro-centric language of trance and shamanism. The idea of pure improvisation became more important than composition. I’m right at the tail end of the baby boom, I was too young to experience the 60s, so I feel like I missed a lot of that. The Grateful Dead used to practice in a house just behind our block. I have a memory of being two or three years old and hearing loud music coming from a house back there, and I found out later when I met the person who owned that house that it was the Grateful Dead practice. I was too young to experience it except as a childhood memory. I look at this now as a cultural legacy of something that has left a very strong image imprint on me. I've dedicated my life to music that is acting in that role of the shamanic or of the non-language based non-storytelling, internal - dealing with the pre-symbolic, dealing with ideas that involve journeying through the inside.
One of the things that is very, very clear in listening to you is how you not only grew up being sensitive to the world, but also have found a way to give an experience like that to others.
Tried. I've been very lucky in that I felt a willingness to take risks with my life, and there's a reason for that. I've always been prone to depression and to feeling social anxiety - to being unable to feel natural within a social setting. I've always been extremely introverted, so I've had to teach myself how to engage socially with people. Every time I would go on stage to perform, I would be wracked with nerves, my intestines would tie up in knots. I'm not a natural performer.
When I was about 14-15 years old, I had a cathartic experience. I remember it was summertime, and I was in my bedroom at my grandparents house. I did a thought experiment where I killed myself. I was never suicidal, but I basically killed myself, sitting in meditation. I did everything in my mind violent towards my body: jumped in front of a truck, in front of a train, off of a bridge, off a building, sliced myself with a knife, stabbed myself, took poison. All of it as a mental exercise, as a thought experiment, without moving, without doing any of this obviously, without even having the urge. And I thought, "What am I afraid of? Why do I fear the world around me? Why do I feel so awkward around people? I'm dead. There's nothing to fear, I am now dead."
I was always an extreme perfectionist, and I didn't want to do anything that I was bad at. I would attack myself if I wasn't good at something, so my story of my childhood was often steering towards things that I had an innate skill towards and away from things that were difficult. So, I have a history of being lazy, and being an extreme perfectionist, who didn't want to do anything badly. But that's a really bad way to learn, right? You can't learn anything without making mistakes and without getting bad first. You have to do something really horrible first, and then you get good at it. So this idea was, I killed myself. Now what am I worried about? I'm dead. If I fail at something, let's say my entire life is a failure. I choose the wrong career. I don't make enough money at it. I'm homeless. I'm sitting on a steam grate in front of a slum in the Bowery of New York or something like that. I'm in a hovel, somewhere in a cardboard hut. Doesn't matter, I'm already dead. Whatever happens is okay, because I'm already dead. And that slowly created a weird thing inside of me. A kind of homunculus, a sort of extra person that grew inside of me to be - I wouldn't say fearless, because I've never been fearless - but a fake person willing to make mistakes, because it's not my natural person. A Golem, as it were, that pretends to be me and pretends to just try stuff without worrying. And it's okay because I'm already dead. Every time I worry about a risk of failure or the thought that I really shouldn't be doing this for a living - it's not really something that my parents approved of. My mum always wanted me to be a doctor, or something important. I went to a good college, I came from a comfortable middle class family, I was supposed to have a nice career. And here I am a disreputable musician, making weird experimental music. It's not what I was supposed to do.
The psychotherapist Rollo May wrote a book called "The Courage to Create", where he says that courage is not the absence of fear, it's doing something despite the fear.
Absolutely. I always feel like I'm not good enough, I constantly feel unable to do what I've already done many times. Every time I start an album, I forget how to make an album. I don't remember that I've done it before. I feel like I'm never really a musician, that I've forgotten everything I've ever learned all the time. I just feel inept most of the time. And this sometimes eats at me, but what I try to do is remember that epiphany that I had when I was a teenager that helped me get over that fear with a kind of fake, synthetic courage. Because I still feel incapable of doing what I've been doing my whole life. And I stop and I wonder, what the heck am I? I'm a musician? What is that? I look around and I see that I'm in a recording studio. I see that I've had albums out and then I've made a decent living doing this, which is especially bizarre because there's a lot of musicians much better than me that are struggling. I shouldn't be making a good living at this. These things are very strange to me. So when you asked what it’s like to have a living doing this kind of music, to me it feels very unreal. It actually feels like something I didn't deserve and something I shouldn't be doing. If that makes any sense. I should have done something much better with my life, I should have been a doctor, you know?
You may be considered a doctor in a different way.
I would have been a pretty bad doctor!
But your music is medicinal for a lot of people. And this is, of course, why we work together.
Thank you. You know, I'm resistant to the idea of therapy music and that I've been dragging my heels with you. To me, it reminds me of all the new age things I've avoided my entire career. My music has always had to have a certain difficulty in it, a certain asymmetry, a certain something that irritated a little bit. Without that slight irritation, I find myself getting very itchy and nervous. If music is too static or too calm, I'd have to turn it off. I'd rather have silence.
But you also create work that is sometimes created for a purpose; you mentioned "Nest" for example.
If you listen to "Nest", it's not static, and it's actually strangely melancholic. There is a pulling within it, there's a constant yearning within that calmness. It's not a comfortable place that it sits in. It's trying to reach into a place. There's a metaphor that I use a lot in my own life and in my art, and that's the metaphor of the story of Eden. Some titles on the album "Nest" are inspired by that, which are "Seeking Eden" and "The Gate is Open". This metaphor for me is basically a Jungian archetype - this idea that we are expelled from Paradise at some point, right? You see this idea in many traditions throughout the world, that humanity was at some point in a higher place than they are now we have fallen to this place. This idea that there is a paradise; a paradise myth. For me, the Jungian archetype comes down to this idea that Paradise is inside of each of us. The metaphor of being expelled from the Garden of Eden is probably most accurately delineated by the Gnostics when they said that when God said "I am", the universe was divided into matter and energy - they didn't quite say it that way, but that the intoning of the language that differentiates between this and that, between me and you, is exactly when we expelled ourselves from Eden. And that this expulsion is a constant thing that we do from moment to moment.
I listen to you, Robert, and this psychodynamic framework comes to mind, that we were in paradise in the womb of our mother, at least if we lived in a happy womb. It was a world to us, safe and free of tension.
Absolutely, and that is part of the Jungian metaphor is that we each were born, we couldn't have avoided being born because we exist, right? So we each have this experience of a violent transformation from a warm, dark and squishy place into a rather harsh and cold world, where things hurt. And we're hungry and thirsty and we have needs. So each of us has this very strong metaphor as a “colonel” inside of us that makes us do things that make us reach outward, yearning for something that we're missing, a paradise that we feel is lost. The idea of the gate is open is that we expel ourselves from that paradise on a moment-to-moment basis. It's a choice we make. All we do is walk back in, it's there. So we carry it inside of us. Nobody's locked the gate. There's no key, it's wide open. We just walk back in. Paradise exists everywhere. It permeates existence, it permeates the universe. It's right here amidst us. It's a fractal, permeating in every one of our cells and every one of our atoms is that essence of pure existence that vibrates. There's no gate, there's no wall, there's no garden. It's just there. And we make the language that separates us from it.
Paradise exists everywhere. It permeates existence, it permeates the universe. It's right here amidst us. It's a fractal, permeating in every one of our cells and every one of our atoms is that essence of pure existence that vibrates. There's no gate, there's no wall, there's no garden. It's just there. And we make the language that separates us from it.
There's a scholar of Taoism named Izutsu, who has written a book on the relationship between Sufism and Taoism, which talks a lot about this idea of pre-lingual space - the idea of the vast ocean of essence, that both of these traditions share. The idea in Tao of being a verb of "I am" is very close to the ancient Hebrew word for God, "I am". “Yahweh” is "I am, it's all a verb. This emotion of essence is the verb to be. Oftentimes, in this self-expulsion of the desert that we're in, outside of Paradise, this is the metaphor that works for me personally in my art, walking across a desert floor: Each of us has our own personal desert. But each of us can dig wells into the sand, and each of those wells goes down to this infinite subterranean ocean of fresh water. Each of our personal wells that we dig inside digs deep inside of ourselves, so metaphorically, we go into our deepest ocean and we pull up this fresh water, into our desert. The desert of existence, the desert of language, the desert of self-exile. We exist in a state of exile. But we each exist with an infinite ocean that's inside, and that fresh water that we pull up from those personal wells that we dig deep inside of each of us, is the same water that each other person pulls up too - we each share that same ocean, the ocean of unconsciousness, the ocean of existence. So when I go into the most personal, solitary, solipsistic space, digging down into my subterranean well, the very personal the most private secret water that I have, if I can find a way to share that, the taste of that water is something that everybody else will recognise. Because they each have that fresh well inside of them too, it's going down to the same ocean, the same infinite place of fresh being.
The irony of art is that when we can express the most personal, the most idiosyncratic, the most solipsistic statement, it becomes the most universal statement. It becomes the thing that all of the things that we've tried to do reaches the people the most deeply, because it contains that little perfume of the ocean, deep underground, right? It contains a whiff of essence. If we don't make art from that deep well, and if we make it from the surface, if we make it from exile, then all we're going to do is communicate to other people's exile.
This is very interesting. I don't like putting labels and genre tags on music and if I tried to describe your music in words, I often arrive at describing it in metaphors and images. Like “It's like nature” or “it's like a forest” or “like a desert”.our music feels very much detached from culture to me. There are very few, if any, human beings in those musical worlds. It's primordial, it's very raw. My natural inclination is to see images with music and with your music I see trees, birds, earth and earthiness, brown colours, black and dark red colours, and blue, and it's very natural.
You know what you just helped me to see? Something that I've been aware of, but it helps me to see that somebody else also notices it. I've been painting a lot in the last couple years, and my paintings never have human forms. They're not what I'm looking for, when I'm painting I am trying to find the look of something that could have just grown there, or that I found. I think oftentimes it's from a very similar place with the music: I want to remove the signs of my paintbrush. I want to remove the signs of myself from my music. I wanted to seem like it was always there somehow. That's not always true; sometimes my music has more of a human side. I mean, some of my albums from the 90s have more of a lush human component if they have some world music aspects, like African or Indonesian. Like "Temple of the Invisible", which is trying to create a ritual of a culture that never existed, trying to imagine a synthetic ancient culture, call it like an anthropological music forgery.
That's funny, because I would argue that there is more of a sense of culture, a sense of “cultureness” in that album.
It's also human voices in that interestingly enough, there's people singing.
But they never sing in a language, right?
No, well, except for Sukhawat Ali Khan, who was making sounds based around Urdu, which was perfect because this imagined civilization I placed somewhere in the Himalayan foothills. Sukhawat is Pakistani of origin and his Indian Sufi background with Urdu, his native language, was very appropriate. It's interesting because the painting I'm doing is pure abstraction, but I'm trying to make it look like it grew. A lot of the things I'm finding the most inspiring are just with pure ink and just blending together mineral pigments, like dry powder pigments, with gum arabic and water. And then essentially, like dipping paper into it, like making puddles of ink and then dipping paper and pulling it off and pushing things onto it, and using almost autonomous methods, instead of painting with a paintbrush. I’m actually finding ways of creating chaos and natural fractal symmetries.
And like you said, with the music, there's no human in there and I find that to be almost endemic of something. I don't know if it's a flaw; maybe my music should speak more to the human condition, but I'm not that interested. I say that with self-criticism. I am inspired not by the human condition, so much as by our place in the universe. Whether we survive this pandemic right now, for example, matters to me because I love many people. The human race to me is a marvellous experiment, but I see the planet as being an organism on its own, and we're just part of this huge flow of energy. I don't have a whole lot to say about the struggles of everyday humanity; maybe that shows me to be without heart, I don't know, because I feel that I actually have a very deep sense of sympathy for the human condition but at the same time I think I know what it is.
I've written this thought down before, in that, I think the people who least fear death are the people who most know how to be kind, because they're not afraid. I think kindness has to come from a fearlessness about one's own well-being. Now, I'm not saying I'm like that, I'm no saint. I'm always concerned about my own well-being, but from a more distant perspective, to separate from my own personal flaws, which are many. Speaking in terms of ideals, it seems to me that those that are most full of joy are those that have experienced their own death, and that if you are afraid of that, you have trouble really experiencing joy. The thanatotic has to be enfolded with the life urge, the urge to procreate and survive, and the awareness of destruction is absolutely essential in order for joy to happen.
But they have a relationship with each other: they are not orthogonal to each other, they are not antagonistic, they co-exist.
Absolutely, they're enfolded, they’re intertwined. Like everything in the universe they exist as one system. I think the inability or the lack of interest that I have, in making, for example, a political statement - For example, I'm appalled by the current state of politics, but that's not something to put into my art. I reserve it for my personal conversations with people. My art is a place for the eternal. My art is a place to speak to the human condition within the universe and our place beyond what happens this week or this month, or between countries or classes. Not that I don't feel that we need to speak to that, but it's not a place where my art needs to go. My art is about something that is speaking to something different, speaking to something that won't change. I mean, I'm sure poverty and power won't change, the existence of those things will never change either. We always have to struggle towards justice, towards kindness, and towards peace - something which I think my country has been extremely flawed about doing. So although I think that there is a role for individuals to be political in their everyday life. It's not something that I find is a place for my music. It's an interesting thing I noticed over the years, one which I don't really know how to speak to. It's just not the place where it goes, the music goes somewhere different, somewhere intertwined, interfolded.
Your work feels very much like a transcending of culture and the usual ways of thinking and experiencing this world. So for that reason, you don't want to include any kind of ideology, whether it's religion or politics.
I think it limits the message as well, and I feel strongly what I think most spiritual traditions would teach. At least I saw it very much within Buddhism: the idea that you cannot change the world outside of you, but you can change the world inside of you. If everybody works on changing themselves, then the world changes, but to try to change the outside world before you've changed yourself is folly. Because we always end up doing the same things. Now, having said that, I don't think that I will ever achieve enlightenment, and I don't think that most people do. I don't even think there is such a thing, to be bluntly honest; I think that there are ways of existing that are less weighty, or less destructive upon the world. There are ways of existing which are more gentle, which are more conscious, but I'm not even sure I'm all that good at that. All I can do is make art that tries to speak to it a little bit in some way that's universal.
If everybody works on changing themselves, then the world changes, but to try to change the outside world before you've changed yourself is folly.